The Populist Trap

Populism among politics in Western Europe and in the United States seems to have gained more and more success in recent years. On the reasons why the rise of populism in the Western world has been so successful, scholars can write whole books, whole libraries even. What I find especially interesting is the response of mainstream politics towards populist figures and parties. Somehow it seems like politicians and political parties alike do exactly the opposite of what seems wise. Amongst the variety of questionable actions undertaken by the opponents of populists and populism, pressing charges against right-wing, anti-immigrant and populist politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands must have been among the dumbest of our time.

By Wouter Engler (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

After the local elections in the Netherlands on 19 March 2014, the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid-PVV) of Geert Wilders brought home quite a victory in the couple of municipalities they were running in. In his celebration speech post-results, he asked a rhetorical question of whether “we” wanted more or less (meer of minder) Moroccans in our country. Obviously, the result was a crowd shouting “minder, minder!”. However distasteful, maybe somewhat illegal, this display of anti-immigrant rhetoric may have been, it wasn’t done to get a reaction from the crowd per se. It was a way to get the political elite in the Netherlands to do what they like to do best, to be “the better man” and to be the police of decency. Geert Wilders and his “minder Marokkanen” speech wasn’t designed, written and spoken for the sake of offending the large Moroccan community in the Netherlands, it was rather designed for the purpose of public reaction, a political strategy if you will.

The result of the speech didn’t miss its target one bit. The day after the infamous speech, many worried citizens rushed to police stations to press charges against the politician for inciting hatred and racism. People felt this time this demagogue and his coupe-du-peroxide went too far. Dismissing a complete group of people based on nationality as a political ideology? Surely, that’s a bridge too far from what is decent and a bridge too close to the 1940s those behind the police visits must have thought. In the end, charges were brought, and Geert Wilders would have to take responsibility for his words and actions in front of a judge. This was, obviously, the right, decent thing to do. Let the judge decide what was wrong with his speech and show the voter that this man is an evil genius, rather than a man of the people.

Geert Wilders in front of a judge; what does that mean exactly? It means a two-year long process of preparation, pro forma meetings, speaking time for the prosecution, speaking time for the defence. All taking place on different days, all with stalling tactics like last minute meeting changes and making a case against the court for not being objective enough (“wrakingsverzoek”). Two and a half years later, the process is still not done, and with every little development in the process, the whole media circus is built up again. Geert Wilders can play the victim card every time the court case comes to the news, claiming freedom of speech is under attack. Meanwhile, the people who pressed charges haven’t gained anything. Geert Wilders will not be imprisoned, or be forbidden to speak in public. He doesn’t even have to answer questions to the judge. Maybe, but only maybe, he has to pay a fine. Quite the process for just a clear conscience. Geert Wilders, on the other hand, gained a lot by being prosecuted. He is now by far the largest in the polls and never has been more popular, right when parliamentary elections are so close.

Finally one can conclude that despite their good intentions and blind belief in the Dutch legal system, the political elite and our “decency-police” walked right into the trap of populism. It proves to be hard for political elites to understand that populism works with either positive or negative publicity. All publicity is good because the leader is a people’s champion. Political errors and politically incorrect speeches are forgiven because this guy is a man of the people, rather than the distant regents from the political elite. Moreover, these flaws make a populist politician more human and less elitist to the people. The “minder Marokkanen” speech would have been long forgotten by everyone now if it wasn’t for our elite of decent people, who have given Geert Wilders a stage to shine on for the past two and a half years. I am sure they will kindly congratulate him on a slamming victory during the parliamentary elections of upcoming March.

– Martijn Groenewold

(Feature Image: Dr Case)

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