Mar 14, 2017 by


Geert Wilders at a campaign stop in Spijkenisse, the Netherlands, last month. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

And so it begins. With the Dutch election on Wednesday, Europe embarks on a yearlong test of how far it’s ready to realign itself as an anti-immigrant, pro-Russian continent marked by ascendant nationalism, alt-Right intolerance and the fragmentation of the European Union.

The worst could happen. Nobody who has watched the British decision to quit the European Union in a strange little-England huff, or the election of Donald Trump with his “America First” anti-Muslim jingoism, can think otherwise. The liberal order has lost its center of gravity. People without memory are on the march. They have no time for the free world if the free world means mingling and migration.

In the Netherlands it’s the rightist Geert Wilders who personifies European unease with large-scale Muslim immigration. He understood early the uses of fear. He wants to close mosques and close borders to asylum seekers. Like Trump he marshals his movement through Twitter rather than traditional party organization. His tweets speak of an “asylum tsunami” and the “Islamization” of the Netherlands, where Muslims make up about 6 percent of the population but more than 15 percent in big cities like Rotterdam.

Wilders has been around for a long time. A dozen years ago, in a piece about his rise, I wrote: “Pour Islamic immigrants from remote villages into Europe’s most liberal culture, replete with sex palaces, drugs and ever more explicit Dutch-invented TV ‘reality shows’ — and the chances something might go haywire were real.” They did.

How the Dutch Stopped Being Decent and Dull

Ever since the murders, in 2002 and 2004 respectively, of the taboo-trampling politician Pim Fortuyn and the movie director Theo van Gogh who had explored suffocated female sexuality under Islam, the Netherlands has been Exhibit A in Europe’s questioning of multiculturalism and the political potency of illiberalism.

What is new is the favorable ecosystem in which Wilders now moves. A dozen years ago no U.S. Congressman would have tweeted this: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

That is what Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa declared over the weekend (and was hailed by David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who tweeted “God Bless Steve King”; most Republicans remained silent). Fascist genetics now have a place on Capitol Hill.

James Fallows of The Atlantic tweeted that King should go to military bases or Afghanistan to “see how many of ‘someone else’s babies’ are in uniform” for the United States. Wilders-loving King might also go to Ellis Island for a refresher on the American idea.

Nor, a dozen years ago, would you have sensed that both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Trump will be watching the Dutch election and wishing for the same result: a Wilders victory.

In the ideology of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, Wilders, the French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, and Poland’s rightist string-puller Jaroslaw Kaczynski are part of the vanguard in what Bannon sees as the coming “very brutal and bloody conflict” for a white-dominated Christian order against Muslims, migration and miscegenation. In a Europe dominated by such politicians, Putin would hold sway because he thinks the same way.

Wilders, in the fragmented Dutch parliamentary system, has no viable route to becoming prime minister. But if his Party for Freedom emerges as the biggest party, it will signal that the momentum remains with a nationalist resurgence that could also carry Le Pen to victory in the French election whose first round takes place next month.

I was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago and met Henk Overbeek, a political scientist. Of a possible Wilders victory, he said, “It’s in the air.” Yes, there’s something in the air. It’s called disruption at any cost. Out with the old. In with the new.

Overbeek spoke to me shortly after the conservative prime minister, Mark Rutte, had published a letter revealing how far rightward Wilders has pushed the Netherlands. He said the “silent majority” would no longer tolerate immigrants who “abuse our freedom.” He added a warning: “Act normal or leave.”

There’s a Dutch expression “Act normal, that is crazy enough,” which captures a don’t-stand-out, keep-your-head-down tradition. But Dutch society has frayed. It’s become volatile. A furious row between the Netherlands and Turkey in recent days revealed the strains.

Rutte put his foot down to prevent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey from using democratic Holland to further Turkish autocracy.

The prime minister prevented two Turkish ministers from whipping the large Turkish community in the Netherlands into voting for increasing Erdogan’s powers in a referendum next month. Big Turkish rallies on the eve of the Dutch election would have played into Wilders’ hands.

Erdogan, in grotesque fashion, proclaimed that Nazism has risen again in Dutch guise. Rutte boasted of his “red line.”

Rutte was right to set it. The European battle to preserve the liberal order is not a time for squeamishness. Erdogan is by now in Putin’s authoritarian camp. If the Netherlands succumbs, France cannot be far behind.

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