quinta-feira, 23 de fevereiro de 2017
The man who invented Trumpism
The man who invented Trumpism
Geert Wilders’ radical path to the pinnacle of Dutch politics.
By NAOMI O'LEARY 2/23/17, 4:00 AM CET Updated 2/23/17, 7:15 AM CET
VENLO, Netherlands —
Long before Donald Trump upended the American political landscape, Geert Wilders was rewriting the electoral playbook in the Netherlands, stomping ruthlessly over convention and being rewarded with votes.
Not only are the two men alike in their peculiar blond hairdos; they share a talent for using controversy to dominate the news cycle and a tendency to forgo a hefty party apparatus in favor of a skeleton team of campaign loyalists and social-media blitzkriegs.
Wilders admires Trump and encourages the comparison, delighted to cast his campaign as part of a global populist wave if it adds momentum ahead of the March 15 vote, in which polls indicate his Freedom Party (PVV) is neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).
“It’s the revenge of the rust belt,” said Tim de Beer, an opinion and policy research expert at the Dutch polling firm Kantar Public. “The Netherlands was among the first to have this revolt.”
But Trump and Wilders differ in important ways. Trump’s lack of focus is completely at odds with Wilders’ singular, dogged determination to pursue his proclaimed mission: stop Islam in the Netherlands. And where Trump is a newcomer to politics, Wilders is one of the longest-serving lawmakers in the Dutch lower house, with a formidable command of parliamentary procedures.
A product of a turbulent period in Dutch politics, when assassinations roiled the country following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Wilders lives under 24-hour police protection.
In recent years, his politics have become ever more radical, as his shock-style anti-Muslim rhetoric drove up his share of support. Wilders has reshaped the political sphere in his own image, extrapolating the threats on his person into a global peril, and dragging the Dutch middle ground to the right.
geertcap_Wilders grew up in Venlo, a small border city with Germany close to some of the poorest pockets of the Netherlands. Traditionally a hub of logistics and cross-border commerce, legal and otherwise, Venlo lies in the heart of the Dutch “Catholic south” — poorer but, locals say, more fun-loving than the austere Calvinist reaches of the north.
Today, the street where Wilders grew up, an unassuming row of red-brick houses on the fringes of the town, is festooned with the red, yellow and blue flags of carnival, a riotous annual street party that is a linchpin of strong regional identity.
Wilders grew up the youngest, with a brother and two sisters. The family was Roman Catholic, in tune with the conservative community around them, though Wilders is not religious. His father, who worked in a local company, was of old Limburg stock — the southernmost province of the Netherlands in which Venlo is found.
Wilders often celebrates Limburg and Venlo — “the most beautiful province” and a “city of fun and pleasure” — in speeches and tweets. He relishes speaking Limburgish, a relative of German and Dutch, and maintains a clique of Limburg loyalists who speak the dialect together, including a childhood friend he brought with him from the old neighborhood to The Hague.
Wilders is mostly silent about the other side of his family tree. His mother was born in what is now Indonesia. She arrived in the Netherlands as a baby after her parents fled the collapsing Dutch colony that would later become the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.
Wilders’ grandmother never stopped missing the colonial world she had left behind. Sometimes, on special occasions, dishes from “Tempo Doeloe” — the good old days — would be prepared.
“I remember ‘rice tables,’ we called it,” Wilders’ older brother Paul, an angular man of 62 who runs an IT company, said over a cup of Earl Grey tea in a cafe in Utrecht, the city where he now lives. “Well, it took two or three days. The table was full of all sorts of food.”
Old school writings by a 10-year-old Wilders unearthed by Dutch media reveal an early commanding tone. “On 7 January 1974 petrol is rationed,” read the article in a school newspaper about the oil crisis. “Everyone must abide by this. Not only you but … !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!EVERYONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
His political turn came in his early 20s when, after completing his military service and studying at the Open University, he found work at the social insurance administration, and was shocked by its dysfunction.
It was the start of a life-long contempt for Dutch bureaucracy and the tradition of the poldermodel — the consensus-based decision-making that takes its name from the cooperation required to keep the sea from flooding the low-lying country.
“I experienced first-hand the degeneration of the poldermodel in full force,” Wilders recalled in his 2005 autobiography of his years as a civil servant.
One night in Wilders’ apartment in Utrecht, he debated with his brother: Which political party he should join? He chose the VVD, the party of his current rival, Prime Minister Rutte.
Wilders worked his way up, writing material for the party leader, the immigration critic Frits Bolkestein and becoming a local councilor in Utrecht in 1997. He also noticed that a lot of Turkish immigrants seemed to live in his Utrecht neighborhood, Kanaaleiland. He didn’t like the way it was changing.
In those early days in politics, Wilders transformed himself. He took media training classes, sharpening up his Limburg-accented speech. He bleached his brown hair, a joke, according to one former friend, but it got him such instant attention that he decided to keep it.
When he got elected to parliament in 1998 on the electoral list of the VVD, the toweringly tall blond caught the attention of the media and his colleagues in parliament.
His appearance wasn’t the only thing grabbing attention. Wilders quickly earned a reputation as a rebel who refused to toe the party line. (Some people are “married to the party” he noted dismissively in his 2005 autobiography.)
“There are two Wilders. The guy in the camera lens, and the guy you sit with in his office, or in an airplane or a restaurant. That’s a completely different person. He plays a role.”
geertcap_Wilders was deeply suspicious of Islam long before three airplanes were flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in New York and Washington D.C. in 2001.
Before attending university, he traveled in the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Syria and Iran. Arriving in Israel in the early 1980s as a teenager with a bohemian head of brown curls, he spent all of his money in a week, and ended up picking peppers and melons in a Moshav in the Jordan valley. He stayed more than a year. It was the start of a life-long infatuation with the country he now sees as the frontier of a struggle between barbarism and civilization.
But it was 9/11 and its destabilizing effect on Dutch politics that gave his politics their defining shape. The attacks in the U.S. gave rise to a different type of politician. Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay conservative, shook up Dutch politics with his outspoken views on immigration and Islam.
Sitting on the benches of the VVD, Wilders was frustrated at his party’s restraint and inability to compete with the rising star. And when Fortuyn was assassinated by an environmentalist in 2002, Wilders picked up his mantle. He became increasingly critical of Turkey’s bid for European Union membership. The country was a “Trojan horse,” in his view, that didn’t belong in the “Judeo-Christian” world.
The issue led to his final break with the VVD in 2004. Armed with a few cardboard boxes from his old office, he set out to form his own party.
Shortly afterward, a second assassination rocked the Netherlands. Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker, was killed by a young Dutch Moroccan who said he was upset by the director’s short film “Submission,” which was critical of Islam. It was to be a fork in the road for Wilders.
Two key things happened. First, a former journalist named Martin Bosma came across the scene of the murder when he was out to buy bread one morning. The murder of van Gogh, Bosma writes in his autobiography, spurred his decision to join Wilders to build a new party from a small room in The Hague. He became Wilders’ most valuable ally.
Second, police investigating the murder discovered the killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, also had designs on Wilders, and placed the young parliamentarian under police protection. Since that date, November 4, 2004, Wilders has lived under 24-hour protection. Locked inside a security bubble, he cannot spontaneously go for a walk or easily attend public events.
Together, Bosma and Wilders created something like a “virtual” party. It had no members beyond Wilders himself, and it forwent expensive headquarters, public funding and a conventional campaigning apparatus.
Geert Wilders, left, delivers a 2012 speech entitled "Their Brussels, our Netherlands" as Martin Bosma, center, and Fleur Agema look on in The Hague | Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images
Geert Wilders, left, delivers a 2012 speech entitled “Their Brussels, our Netherlands” as Martin Bosma, center, and Fleur Agema look on in The Hague | Robin Utrecht/AFP via Getty Images
By chance as well as by necessity — threats to his life made it difficult for Wilders to campaign conventionally — the two men were early adopters of internet politicking. They set up websites and email lists and, when the moment arrived, moved quickly to harness social media.
Wilders soon figured out how to leverage his hunted status to cause drama and lend himself freedom-fighter credibility on the international anti-Islam alarmist lecture circuit. His 2005 autobiography was written from the prison-like safe house where he lived for a time with his wife Krisztina, a Hungarian former diplomat, in the military complex Kamp Zeist outside of Utrecht.
He also learned how to dominate the news cycle from within safe walls.
He became the consummate opposition politician, using his deep knowledge of parliamentary procedures to campaign from within the House of Representatives, and coaching protégés to do likewise. (Although resentment against elites is a founding feature of his politics, Wilders is himself an absolute insider. Only three lawmakers have been in parliament longer than his 6,694 days.)
Wilders severely restricts media access to the party. Attempts to contact it, or any of its lawmakers, are typically met with a wall of silence. This is combined with carefully rationed pronouncements designed to outrage and grab headlines. Wilders specializes in coming up with insulting compound words, such as straatterroristen (“street terrorists,” or foreign-looking men hanging around); haatpaleizen (“hate palaces,” or mosques); or his infamous kopvoddentaks proposal (a “head rag tax” on headscarves).
Twitter was a natural fit for Wilders, and it is now his primary venue for public comment. His election manifesto for 2017 was posted as a single, one page image on Facebook and Twitter, but its proposals — shut all mosques, ban the Quran — were reported internationally, unlike the largely-ignored tomes of his rivals.
Over the course of Wilders’ life under armed protection, his views have become increasingly radical, casting Islam and the West as ancient enemies locked in a civilizational war for survival. In 2005, his manifesto allowed that not all Muslims were dangerous, noted the importance of freedom of religion, and advocated that only radical mosques should be closed. Nowadays, he claims there are no moderate Muslims, just liars, or people who haven’t read the Quran.
“His driving force is the idea that the culture as we know it in Europe and Holland should be saved from Islam,” Geert Tomlow, a former party candidate and friend, said.
To pursue this mission, colleagues say Wilders created a steely public persona that contrasts deeply with his private person.
“There are two Wilders,” said former PVV lawmaker Wim Kortenoeven. “The guy in the camera lens, and the guy you sit with in his office, or in an airplane or a restaurant. That’s a completely different person. He plays a role.”
The private Wilders — a man with a mischievous sense of humor, and doubts and insecurities he never displays in public — is increasingly rarely glimpsed, according to those who know him.
Underlining Wilders’ sense of peril, a member of his security team was recently suspended on suspicion of leaking details to a criminal organization. “He has an anxiety problem with new people and new faces. He has a lot of trust issues. You don’t reach him anymore,” Tomlow said.
An uncanny ability for verbal recall, which has made him an excellent mock interviewer when training new lawmakers for parliament, means he is not a man who forgets a slight.
“He has this hard disk in his mind, and he really remembers everything you do and say,” Tomlow said. “Every nuance, every comma.”
A DANGEROUS GAME
geertcap_As the elections draw closer, a large graffiti message in black and white was painted across on a railway bridge outside Wilders’ hometown of Venlo.
“How, Geert?” it read, a reference to criticism that Wilders’ promise to make the Netherlands “ours again” is not backed up by concrete policies.
Locals in Wilders’ old neighborhood echoed the sentiment, several saying that while they may agree with his arguments, they wouldn’t back a man with a one-page program for government.
“I don’t know who to vote for but I certainly won’t be voting for him,” said Ans Stals, a woman with thick-rimmed glasses, aged 55. “He doesn’t set out clearly what he will do.”
Jannes van Dijk, a 19-year-old first-time voter attending a nearby school, said the Freedom Party would not get his vote although he agreed with Wilders on many things.
“Foreigners come here and they don’t work. We have to pay for them and they just sit on the couch, that’s the problem,” van Dijk said. “I agree with him on that, but there are more politicians that think that. He just gets the attention.”
And there is one voter Wilders is certainly not winning over: his older brother, Paul.
“I don’t vote for my brother because I do believe he is playing a dangerous game,” he said. “His primary scapegoat is Muslims. What he’s aiming at is from my point of view merely political power.”
It was during Wilders’ early years in parliament with the VVD, around the turn of the century, that Paul first felt he needed to talk to his brother about his political views.
“I noticed the start of a certain narrow-mindedness, which I believed could well turn out to be serious. And indeed it did,” said Paul.
It wasn’t a confrontation. Paul probed his brother with questions, saying he wanted to better understand his reasoning. “In the beginning, he was sort of open to at least discuss,” he said. “It didn’t help that much, because he’s a strong-headed man.”
Since then, in his brother’s view, Wilders has pursued an increasingly lonely, sad and dangerous path. The last straw for Paul came when Wilders posted a photograph of a bloodied German Chancellor Angela Merkel after a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market killed 12 in December.
His protest has come at a cost.
“Either you’re with him or if you’re not. If you do criticize him, you’re out. Instead of making the distinction between the man and his ideas, he cut me off. Twitter, whatever, you name it, there’s no way for me to contact him,” Paul said.
He decided to speak out ahead of the election because he fears his brother’s rhetoric could lead to violent social unrest.
“My brother has said, in case me and my voters don’t get what we want — that’s a free translation — there could well be a revolution,” he said. “That’s like putting out a fire with gasoline.”
Political tension is something Paul is familiar with. For more than a decade, he and his family have endured death threats. Previously, these came mostly from Muslims, according to Paul. Now, most arrive from hardline Wilders supporters who know of Paul’s views.
There is more opposition in the family. Paul is confident that his mother, now in her mid-80s, won’t be casting her ballot for her son. “I’m pretty sure my mother has not and will never vote for my brother or his party,” he said.
THE CHURCHILL OF HOLLAND
geertcap_The Freedom Party is a strangely hollow operation. It barely features in municipal or regional politics, despite consistently topping opinion polls, mostly because it lacks organizing power and suffers a dearth of suitable candidates.
Being a public figure within the Freedom Party comes with a social cost due the party’s divisive positions and the prospect of danger from Islamic extremists. Wilders abandoned an attempt to submit candidates to run for local government in his native Venlo in 2009 due to a lack of suitable options.
His party has been rocked by a number of defections and scandals: One lawmaker was arrested for getting into a brawl; another was accused of threatening to urinate in the letterbox of a neighbor.
Wilders has also alienated staff with an autocratic leadership style that, in the view of several defectors, limits the party from reaching its full potential.
Former colleagues describe him as a workaholic who demands the same dedication from those around him. Colleagues on holiday with their families, even as far as a transatlantic flight away, fear the call that forces them to return for an ordinary party meeting. Two party employees are currently suing for overwork.
“He believes he is the Churchill of Holland,” said Tomlow. “He believes he can save Holland.”
Yet ultimately, the biggest barrier to Wilders becoming prime minister may be Wilders himself.
His idiosyncratic leadership style is a weakness in the fragmented Dutch political landscape, which requires multiple parties to band together and hash out complex programs to form a government. A series of political rivals have ruled out working with him.
But in other ways, Wilders has already won.
“Mainstream parties have shifted to the right,” said Matthijs Rooduijn, a political sociologist at Utrecht University. “He has changed Dutch politics.”
Rutte, the prime minister, has imitated Wilders’ rhetoric on immigration and multiculturalism throughout the campaign. And a constellation of small parties offer voters a sanitized version of Wilders’ Euroskeptic, low-tax, tough-borders program.
If the Freedom Party underperforms in the election compared to polls, as it has in the past, there will be a crowd of hopeful successors, waiting for Wilders to call it a day and retire to work the lecture circuit in the United States.