If you want to know how detached, even otherworldly, Europe’s political and media classes have become, look no further than their response to the Dutch elections. That Geert Wilders, the stiff-haired leader of the Islam-panic outfit the Party for Freedom, didn’t do as well as expected is being celebrated as a ‘blow to [Europe’s] populist surge’. The Dutch people have stood up for decency, the anti-populist set claims, and said ‘Halt!’ to the post-Brexit era of weirdness. This is delusional. Let’s call it the Dutch delusion: the idea that politics as it once was has been defended in Holland, and might be brought back to life across Europe.
No sooner had the exit polls for the Dutch election been published than the Twitterati and opinion-formers were hailing the resuscitation of pre-Brexit ‘normalcy’. ‘Global populist surge halted’, claimed one report. This ‘Dutch snub’ could be the beginning of the end for the ‘far right’, said another. Dutch PM Mark Rutte, leader of the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) that won most seats, says Dutch people have said ‘whoa’ to Brexit and Trump, to ‘the wrong kind of populism’. Watch out, you tens of millions of American and British voters: your allegedly nasty politics is heading for defeat by the Dutch and other people nicer than you.
There are two delusions here. The first is that Wilders is the same as Brexit. That there’s a continuum of populism, starting with Brexit and running through Trump, Le Pen and Wilders: an indistinguishable blob of ‘far right’ sentiment that clings like a tumour to Europe. This continuum of populism is pure invention, a construct of increasingly tetchy anti-populists in the media. These people either lack the nuance to understand that the growing opposition to the old politics takes different forms around the world, or are keen to tar every new political sentiment with the same brush of ‘FASCISM!’ in order to make their task of demonising it, and avoiding looking at what’s behind it, that bit easier.
The truth is that the Wilders worldview is a million miles away from Brexit. That both the Moroccan-bashing, Koran-banning Wilders and millions of working-class people in formerly industrial parts of England and Wales oppose the EU is neither here nor there. It’s like saying the Olympian who waves the Union flag after winning a race is the same as the BNP skinhead who waves it as he stomps menacingly through an Asian suburb. Where Brexit was a clean, positive rebellion against the EU – not for UKIP, not for clampdowns on immigration, and certainly not for the persecution of Muslim immigrants – the Wilders outlook comes with all kinds of backward ideas. His party wants to ban the Koran, a deeply reactionary idea. It wants to shut down mosques: an intolerable assault on freedom of religion. He wants to ban Muslim immigration. There was no such reaction or illiberalism or shrillness to the broad Brexit vote.
Indeed, as made clear by the post-referendum Ashcroft polls, a majority of Brexiteers voted Leave from a belief that laws should be made in the nation that must live by them. They voted on democratic principle. The second most common reason given for the Leave vote was concern over immigration levels, but even this is nothing like the Wilders outlook. A large majority of Brexit voters want EU migrants to stay in Britain and want immigration to continue, albeit in a thought-out fashion. It’s wrong even to compare Trump with Wilders, for the simple fact that Trump is utterly unable to enact Wilders-like policies, even if he wanted to. The US, being a constitutionally liberal republic, in which the state is expressly forbidden from interfering with freedom of religion and speech, could never ban the Koran or close mosques. Trump is not Wilders.