Crown prince with a dark side

Edition 26 January 2018, by Johannes Visser

The Hague – Political newcomer Thiery Baudet has been crowned Dutch Politician of the Year 2017. The controversial young leader of Forum voor Democratie (Democracy Forum) won 39 percent of the EenVandaag tv opinion panel, in which 45.000 viewers cast their vote. The 34-year old beat by a longshot the other ‘leaders of a new generation’, the similarly young leaders of the liberal VVD Klaas Dijkhoff (18%) and the GreenLeft Jesse Klaver (14%). Voters said they admire Baudet’s sudden political rise and his party’s continuous growth in the polls and in membership numbers; and they respect his ‘strong verbalism, fresh aura and novel sound’, according to the opinion panel. It’s the first time that Baudet won Politician of the Year, and it is a remarkable feat for a man who until 15 months ago had not even founded his political party yet. It speaks to his meteoric rise in Dutch politics, launched from relative obscurity as the author of a controversial book about sex relations; to being a political firebrand on the fringe right, then grabbing two seats in Dutch parliament in last year’s elections. It is also similar to the political career path of last year’s Politician of the Year, Geert Wilders.

Wilders, who has won the title four times in all, is of likeminded ideological cloth as Baudet: against immigration from -especially Muslim- third world countries; against the transfer of national sovereignty to the EU; and very much for promotion of Dutch culture. But Wilders has until now been a one-man show, not allowing new members to join his Freedom Party (PVV). In contrast, the FvD owes its popularity to Baudet’s smooth performances in the media as well as the electrical party events that attract hundreds or thousands of young enthusiasts who want to get involved with his party. In the last polls of 2017, FvD had outpaced Wilders’ PVV as the second most popular political party of the land. Baudet, like Wilders, presents himself as the real alternative to the traditional parties that have dominated the scene for the past decades. Spouting populist memes on Twitter and relishing in the media fallout that ensues, his popularity keeps growing. At the beginning of the new year Baudet waded into the climate debate by tweeting that extreme weather conditions are not increasing; that the climate is not warming as much as predicted; that carbon-dioxide (CO2) is great for growing plants and that smog in India has nothing to do with CO2. After the Dutch mediocracy burned Baudet for his tweet, an expert of chemistry in the leftist Volkskrant countered that Baudet’s statements, however provocative, were factually correct on all four accounts.

Popularity through populism, the world has seen it before and so has The Netherlands as of late. At a media- frenzied party congress in Amsterdam last November, Baudet called for an unequivocal promotion of what he calls ‘Dutch values’. Behind him was a large screen portraying an old merchant ship, symbolizing Dutch entrepreneurship which culminated in the world’s first multinational company: the Dutch East India Company (VOC). With this imagery Baudet was harking back to a supposed glorious and proud past of Holland, a past he reckons has been lost. “We are the last generation who can turn the tide”, he said during his speech On the FvD website a gloom-anddoom future of the country is painted, and only Baudet’s party is supposedly able to save the country from a certain hell. These incendiary remarks have certainly gotten his opponents up in arms, accusing him of using racist and sexist undertones in his speeches. His five hour long dinner conversation last October with the unabashed racist and inspirator of the American extremist alt-right movement, Jared Taylor, ruffled a lot of feathers in the country. In its defense, the FvD stated that its members are ‘listening to various voices from across the political spectrum’, but on the whole, nobody really doubts Baudet’s affinity with radical fringe-groups, where passions and opposition against the proverbial other run high.

Baudet has also irked a number of women’s groups, who criticize his supposed sexism. The politician for the first time acquired something of national fame before his political career, when he appeared on the talk show Pauw & Witteman in 2014. Here he promoted his fictional story Conditional Love. He also defended infamous ‘pickup artist’ Julien Blanc who has been denied entry in a number of countries for encouraging rape and the mistreatment of women during pickup workshops. Baudet’s subsequent misogynous remarks on Facebook and websites like GeenStijl and De Dagelijkse Standaard led to more outcries by women’s groups from across the political spectrum. In September last year the front door of Baudet’s house had an anarchy sign sprayed on it. The Radical Anarchist Feminist Front claimed responsibility and the politician has been placed on a larger security detail. But according to Baudet himself, he is neither racist nor sexist. At the end of last year he admitted to having fallen in love with the daughter of Iranian refugees, who grew up in The Netherlands and made a life for herself under difficult circumstances. Perhaps the young Politician of the Year is indeed softening his image as he is now under the public glare more than ever; and bestowed with actual political power, if only marginal and in opposition to the current government. But as this clean-shaven, fresh-looking and well-spoken political outsider has made a name for himself coming out of the political fringes and into the mainstream, he continues to play to voters’ fears and darker sides.

Just as Donald Trump in the United States, the racist-extremist parties in the UK, France and Austria, Geert Wilders and now Baudet have discovered, it pays off electorally to appeal to the public underbelly. There is no denying that the anonymity of the Internet has provided many powerful channels for expressing what are considered people’s ugliest emotions. Internet trolls and so called reagluurders spend many hours of their day spouting hate and fearmongering against whomever, and they do so almost always anonymously. Political leaders, from the cynical to the opportunistic, can tap into these widespread frustrations to build up their political base. It is actually a healthy function of democracy to bring these unhealthy tendencies to the surface and into public discourse. But it remains to be seen if the freshly crowned Politician of the Year will be able to move beyond the reactionary, and actually be a constructive influence for The Netherlands in the time to come.