Geert Wilders

European nations aren’t just dominoes waiting to fall to right-wing extremism.

Updated: March 17, 2017 This post has been updated to reflect election results.

Remember when Geert Wilders was poised to take over Europe? Browsing English-language coverage of the Dutch elections, you might have assumed the far-right party leader—who won praise from nativist controversy-hunter and Iowa Representative Steve King—was sure to be the most popular politician the Netherlands and would solidify the extreme-right’s grip on the West. That didn’t happen, but it’d be similarly wrong to think, after an election campaign where the winning party appeared to adopt some of Wilders' anti-migrant rhetoric, that his defeat is a clear victory for anti-Trumpism.

Maybe this isn’t so surprising. We live in a climate of political upheaval right now, and Wilders, at least during the election, functioned as a visually memorable bellwether for the West’s swing to the far right. Still, there’s a problem with the English-language media’s obsession with him. Among British and American publications, the Wilders worries were as much a projection of domestic angst as a reflection of Dutch reality.

Something dramatic is indeed happening in Dutch politics right now. It’s just that Wilders and his party, the PVV, have far less to do with it than you might expect. The PVV performed slightly worse than polls predicted, earning 20 seats in the Netherlands’ 150-member parliament, instead of a projected 24 to 26. This leaves Mark Rutte’s VVD—the most successful party, with 33 projected seats—in a good position to form a coalition government.

Still, Wilders’s party remains the second largest in the Dutch parliament with 13.1 percent of the vote. Two other parties nabbed more than 12 percent of the vote. Even Rutte’s victorious VVD, whose success on is being widely trumpeted as a powerful message against extreme-right populism, only scored 21.3 percent. The once dominant Labor Party has been demolished, with a general evening-out of its former voters across a number of smaller left and centrist parties.

Like Dutch politics in general, the situation is complicated and not especially sexy. The Netherlands has a pluralist system where 13 parties (yes, 13) are now represented in parliament; multi-party coalition governments have been the rule for over a century. Despite the chorus of worried thinkpieces, the number of buyers for Wilders’s PVV remains static in an extremely busy political marketplace. Indeed, the very nature of Dutch politics makes something of a mockery of the idea of “winning the popular vote”, which doesn’t in any way mean the same thing as it would in the U.S.

The overplaying of the Wilders threat cuts both ways. It was false to present his party and its extreme-right policies as poised to take over the Netherlands. It’s also simplistic to label Wilders’s restrained success as a “beautiful blow against Trumpism,” as did a recent email from Avaaz pushing this letter of congratulation to Dutch voters. The tenor of Dutch politics has still shifted rightwards and Wilders’s PVV has shaped the debate more than it electoral showing might suggest. In a bid to woo PVV voters, for example, Rutte’s VVD published a full page press advertisement this January warning migrants to “be normal or be gone”, a move picked up by the PVV as an attempt to out-Wilders Wilders himself.

So why the international obsession with Wilders? The fact that he visually embodies everyone’s idea of an extreme-right politician certainly helps. With that swooshy blond hair and those dead eyes, he looks uncannily like a grown-up version of the Hitlerite youth who sings Tomorrow Belongs To Me in Cabaret. It is also undeniable that far-right demagogues are gaining greater purchase across the world right now. We need to pay close attention to their rise, and in a post-Trumpxit world, Anglo-American readers are understandably interested in events that may mirror shifts in their own domestic politics. But fundamentally, characters like Wilders, a ghoulish figure who has been memorably described as having “a dustbin fire behind the blank eyes of his human suit” are simply interesting to discover. By contrast, reports of coalition negotiations are as exciting to read as a page of binary code.

The problem is that a false mirror is created. The monolithic two-party system in America and (until the rise of the Scottish National Party) Britain creates a mental frame to European political stories from those countries that imposes a falsely binary storyline on pluralist politics, where the extreme right wins or loses all.

We see the same phenomenon in reporting on France, where Marine Le Pen’s Front National enjoys substantial support. Len Pen’s party has often recently been portrayed as more dominant than it is because presidential election votes likely to be cast in opposition to her are divided between many candidates. France’s two-round presidential voting system means that, in the end, only one other candidate will go up against Le Pen in the second round, consolidating most of the votes against her.

Meanwhile, far-right European governments are not, in fact, on the way. That’s because they’re already here. Britain’s current migration policies are seen by some as brutal enough to render a far-right vote obsolete, while rightist governments in Poland and Hungary are attacking press freedom and what were until recently considered basic civil rights. These infringements are somewhat under the radar because, when it comes to Anglo-American scrutiny, these countries are not high on the list of Places We Are Supposed to Care About.

This confusing storytelling only gives fuel to domestic extremists who want to spread racism and division. When opportunists like Steve King cite Wilders as political inspiration, it’s pushing an assumption that the Dutchman’s is an ever-rising political voice that can no longer be ignored. The reality is that Wilders is a figure with a significant but so-far fixedly peripheral role in Dutch politics that shows no current major shift. Of course, even peripheral figures have the power to shape national debate and ruin the lives of minorities.

The Dutch elections have still broken something. That’s the belief in an unstoppable right-wing populist march through the West’s institutions, one that would start with Brexit, gain power from Trump’s election and inevitably deliver more extreme-right governments in Europe. Trump’s power may be unaffected and the slow, grim unfolding of Brexit, and its implications are no less inevitable. But maybe after Wednesday’s results, we will stop viewing European states as mere dominoes waiting to fall.

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