Geert Wilders was beaten, but at the cost of fuelling racism in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the defeat of Geert Wilders’ anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-Islam Freedom party is a pyrrhic victory. The cost of this victory was that the country’s centre-right party appropriated the rhetoric of Wilders to beat him. Mark Rutte, who leads the VVD party, which won the largest number of seats in the election, talked of “something wrong with our country” and claimed “the silent majority” would no longer tolerate immigrants who come and “abuse our freedom”.
The Guardian view on Geert Wilders’ defeat: good news, to be treated with caution.

Rather than challenge racists, Rutte has boosted their confidence, pouring arsenic into the water supply of Dutch politics. He’s been happy to play the tough guy – as prime minister in the last week of the election campaign Rutte burnished his populist credentials through a fractious dispute with Turkey. He calculated it was in the interests of the Dutch prime minister to be tough on Turkey, and in the interests of the Turkish president to be tough on the Netherlands. He happily sparked a mini-international crisis for the sake of votes. Rutte said stopping Wilders was about stopping the “wrong sort of populism”. The Dutch prime minister will learn that he can’t run the rhetoric of reaction; it will end up running him.

Dealing with the populists who deal in fear offers three options: ignore, co-opt or confront. The surging force in rightwing politics is a form of ethno-populism, driven by heightened concerns over immigration and terrorism. When the right adopts the far-right’s language and policies, the only victory is for the hardliners. Supping with the devil can mean you enter the room as a guest and end up as dessert. Look at France, where Marine Le Pen could end up in the second round of the presidential election leading a party with no significant presence in the National Assembly. She would then have a chance to peel off members of the centre-right Republican party by offering the premiership and other ministerial posts in her putative government.

Power is enormously seductive. Just ask Donald Trump. He first upended the US Republican establishment and now sits atop it. In the White House Trump models himself on America’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson. Jacksonian America is a paranoid place: under siege, with its values undermined either by an elite cabal or by immigrants and its future under threat by arms of government that oppress voters rather than protect them. Even US neoconservatives, who thought they were advancing a liberal agenda through war, recoil from the noxious racism.

If recent history is any guide, trying to ignore rightwing populists and the issues they raise does not work

Trump, Wilders and Le Pen are all part of a pitchfork rebellion on the right. It is a historically novel conservative movement. Margaret Thatcher would never have attacked the British intelligence services, nor would Ronald Reagan have traduced the family of a US soldier killed in action.

If recent history is any guide, trying to ignore rightwing populists and the issues they raise does not work. The policy flip-flops over immigration while Ed Miliband was leading Labour revealed to voters a vacillating streak over an issue that was rising to the top of their concerns; the party lost ground. The Dutch Labour party in this election framed their anti-migration arguments as protecting workers – but the party’s real problem was that it was in coalition with the centre-right government until 2014 and pushed through painful cuts to pensions and healthcare. Voters have not forgiven it.

What is lacking here is context. Technology has helped populists frame their messages to appear more in tune with the zeitgeist than established political parties, at a time when globalization has made many feel insecure about their position in society.

Political parties, and the system of representative government, grew out of a more restrained politics, where voters decided which package of policies they wanted. With the rise of social media and single-issue campaigning, parties lost their monopoly on information. This at a time when people are more and more interested in single issues, causes and individual campaigns. These lend themselves to rightwing demagoguery, which trades in unsubstantiated claims.

The change in politics is happening as poorer workers see their governments not bothering to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Ahead of them are white-collar workers, who are frightened of being downsized themselves and are wary of paying taxes to provide benefits for anyone else.

In the Netherlands, which appears a competitive and productive economy, real household consumption is still lower than a decade ago. Only last year, the head of the government’s think-tank said prosperity was not being widely shared and a yawning gap was opening up between old and young, white and non-white as well as lowly-qualified and highly qualified people. Kim Putters of the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP) warned people were being left powerless and sought control over their lives. Sound familiar?

This is the bumpy terrain over which the populist tweeters – including Le Pen, Wilders and Trump – ride. They play on the idea that the system has failed and once elected only they will deal with “problems”: the non-whites, non-Christians and other cultural deviants along with the smug bureaucrats, lawyers and professors. Populist movements want to overturn constitutional governments so that the groups they define as enemies of the people can be targeted. That’s why they need to be confronted. That’s why the progressive success story of the Dutch elections was the Green Left party, whose leader Jesse Klaver preached the virtues of an open, fair society: “stand for your principles,” he told voters. “Be straight. Be pro-refugee. Be pro-European”. With 14 seats, he can play kingmaker in coalition talks.

Klaver, the 30-year-old son of an absentee Moroccan father and part-Indonesian mother, was canny enough to use social media and rallies to build support, but his breakthrough was largely down to the fact he was the anti-Wilders candidate. Klaver, who looks like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and sounds like America’s Bernie Sanders, sold an optimistic vision of tolerance, equality and environmentalism, through a slick, web-driven campaign strategy. His message to Wilders: “I want my country back”. He was given to slapping bigots down, saying he had had enough of hate. In TV debates he told Wilders that Islam wasn’t the problem in Holland, Wilders was. Klaver’s right: the way to take on the far-right is not to imitate racists but to fight them.