A few weeks before the Dutch election in March I sent a rather inauspicious tweet, pledging to plunge into the North Sea without the aid of swimming trunks if Thierry Baudet’s Forum voor Democratie made it into Parliament. At the time Baudet was proclaiming in domestic and foreign media that his young party was on the verge of an historic breakthrough and would scoop up at least 10 seats from disgruntled voters. But the polls and the wider context suggested the number was more likely to be zero. Forum was one of a trio of parties that emerged from the Ukraine referendum, who were both successful, in orchestrating a 62% vote against the EU accession treaty, and politically ineffective, because the Dutch government went ahead and signed it anyway, having secured some paper concessions. The parties’ message about about the government holding voters in contempt resonated loudly in the context of a straight ‘yes or no’ vote with no binding consequences, but the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Dutch election campaign tends to stifle small voices.
Fortunately, by the time Baudet and his colleague Theo Hiddema settled into their seats, the sea temperature had risen and the handful of people who read my tweet had forgotten all about it anyway. Though it fell short of its leader’s expectations, FvD’s achievement was remarkable for a party that had only existed for a year. It picked up 187,000 votes, just behind the long-established Bible Belt party SGP. By comparison, VoorNederland, led by the prominent ‘No’ campaigner Jan Roos, which prior to the election was thought to have the best prospects of the Ukrainian trio, managed just over 38,000 and GeenPeil – which wanted every Parliamentary vote to be decided by an online referendum – less than 5,000.
Even more striking has been FvD’s performance since March 15. While the rest of the political fleet lingered in the doldrums during the seven months of coalition talks, Baudet’s faction had the wind in its sails. By the time the new government took office opinion polls predicted 10 seats for FvD and the number has since risen to 12, putting it in a pack of half a dozen parties vying for second place behind the VVD. In the fragmented Dutch landscape, where no party gets much more than 30 of the 150 seats, this is a substantial achievement. So, too, is Baudet’s success in building up a sizeable membership at a time when political participation is in long-term decline. Around 1,500 people attended the FvD’s first conference at the weekend in Amsterdam and it claims a total membership of 17,000.
Like most political successes, Baudet’s is a mix of luck, judgment and good timing. The Ukraine referendum gave him the chance to test the political waters without the demands of a formal election campaign, such as debates, manifestos and a working party infrastructure. He has profited from the decline in support for Geert Wilders, who has followed a disappointing election with a toothless performance as opposition leader. Commentators have written Wilders off prematurely in the past, but for the first time in 10 years he has a serious rival on the nationalist right. Nearly a quarter of Freedom Party voters said in last weekend’s De Hond opinion poll that they would back Baudet next time.
Like Wilders, Baudet cuts a distinctive figure in the grey world of Dutch politics, with his sweep of black hair and silver tongue, though he has not yet acquired Wilders’s ability to dismiss opponents with a caustic one-liner. Wilders’s reputation for plain speaking – denouncing judges as ‘barking mad’ (knettergek), Rutte as a ‘political conman’ (politieke oplichter) and Dutch Moroccans as ‘scum’ (tuig) – is one of his main electoral assets, but also a liability. Baudet has cultivated a more sophisticated persona, attempting to speak Latin in his maiden Parliamentary speech and installing a grand piano at his office in the Binnehof. Where Wilders snipes at ‘the elite’ from the sidelines, Baudet encourages the belief that he can cleanse the system from within. His more elevated, academic language has given right-wing populism a sheen of respectability, which may explain his success in attracting VVD voters who find Wilders too coarse.
Baudet shares Wilders’s undisguised contempt for the institutions of politics. Parliament, he claims, has been hijacked by a ‘party cartel’ who are more concerned with their own careers than the welfare of the country. With typical brashness, Baudet held up his failure to make an impact in the chamber as evidence of the ‘superficial’ level of debate and the preponderance of ‘nursery school humour’. An attack of modesty is unlikely to overwhelm him; in an interview with NRC at the weekend Baudet said he went into politics because ‘I don’t see anybody else in the Netherlands with the talent to change it.’ Nor is he averse to a social media-friendly stunt, having turned up for a debate on defence spending wearing a tattered flak jacket. Social media was the main motor of the FvD’s election campaign, as supporters gleefully shared memes of Baudet and Hiddema spliced with right-wing tropes such as Pepe the Frog.
Yet there is something disturbing about Baudet’s smooth rise up the greasy pole. He attracts a high proportion of dubious admirers from the more vicious quarters of the internet: the Pepe memes were produced by members of the white supremacist group Erkenbrand, though after being elected Baudet told them to ‘find themselves another hero’. In August he expelled an ‘entryist’ from the fascist extremist group NVU. For a free-thinking intellectual, Baudet is easily seduced by a good conspiracy theory, or a bad one for that matter. Among the speakers at the FvD weekend conference was the hardline climate change denier Marcel Krok. He has described the European Union in apocalyptic terms as ‘a cultural Marxist project that has as its goal the destruction of European civilisation’. When MH17 truthers presented Donald Trump with a letter calling for a new inquiry into the missile strike that claimed 200 Dutch lives, and which has been the subject of a furious disinformation campaign by Russia against the investigating Dutch authorities, Baudet’s name was among the signatories.
While Baudet has backtracked on some of his more notorious statements, such as the claim that immigration is causing the ‘homeopathic dilution’ of western culture, there are too many others to overlook. He has repeatedly attacked the ‘feminisation’ of society and called for men to reclaim their dominant role. He defended the self-styled ‘pick-up artist’ Julien Blanc by claiming that ‘women don’t want to be treated with respect by their sexual partner’. The core of Baudet’s political thesis is that western society has been in decline for a century, and it falls to his ‘Renaissance party’ to save it. His tirades against modern art as being a form of ‘aesthetic terrorism’ that promotes ‘malformed works’ to the detriment of ‘true beauty’ have unsettling overtones of the failed artists who crusaded against ‘degenerate art’ a century ago.
Baudet casts himself as not just a politician, but a cultural warrior who represents civilisation’s last hope. He claims to be fighting on the side of ‘the previous 3000 years of culture, from Homer to James Joyce’ (the latter is an odd choice, since Ulysses, with its immigrant protagonist, experimental structure and celebration of female sexuality seems to stand for pretty much everything Baudet despises). It is a Manichean worldview that harks back to a mythical era when the strong imposed their will and their aesthetics on the weak, by force if necessary. Such ideas were in vogue in the 1930s, at the denouement of Baudet’s golden age. and Before heading down that road again we should perhaps take a good hard look at what happened the last time.