Dr. Rooduijn on the Normalization of Far-Right Discourse: Mainstream Parties Shift Towards Extremes, Populist Radical Right Persists in Radicalism

Geert Wilders (PVV) in House of Representatives during a debating at the Tweede Kamer on April 5, 2023 in Den Haag, Netherlands. Photo: Jeroen Meuwsen.

In examining the unexpected triumph of populist radical right leader Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections on November 22, Professor Matthijs Rooduijn highlights a noteworthy shift within mainstream parties. He notes their increasing embrace of more radical positions, which challenges the prevailing notion of substantial moderation within populist radical right parties. Delving into the narratives of prominent populist radical right figures like Wilders and Marine Le Pen, Professor Rooduijn contends that the observed changes are primarily stylistic rather than indicative of fundamental shifts in political programs.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Matthijs Rooduijn, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, provides insights into the normalization of far-right discourse globally, particularly in the wake of the surprising election results in the Netherlands on November 22, 2023. Dr. Rooduijn underscores a significant transformation within mainstream parties, as they increasingly adopt more radical positions, challenging the prevailing notion of substantive moderation within populist radical right parties. Examining into the narratives of prominent figures such as Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, he argues that observed changes are primarily stylistic, rather than representing fundamental shifts in political programs.

Delving into the complexities of populist radical right movements, particularly in the Netherlands, Dr. Rooduijn identifies nativism as the core feature, following Cas Mudde’s definition. Nativism, characterized by exclusionary nationalism, manifests in various expressions such as antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-immigration attitudes and racism. The interview provides insights into how Wilders’ anti-Islam agenda fits into the broader narrative of populist radical right ideologies.

Examining the international landscape, Dr. Rooduijn explores both the similarities and differences between populist radical right movements in the Netherlands and other European countries. While leadership may vary, the core ideology resonates with a significant portion of the electorate holding right-leaning cultural views. The interview scrutinizes the normalization of far-right discourse in the Netherlands, highlighting shifts in public perception and electoral strategies. Dr. Rooduijn notes the adaptation of mainstream right parties towards the radical right, contributing to the observed normalization globally.

The discussion extends to Wilders’ stance on immigration, distinguishing his emphasis on Islam from other far-right parties. Dr. Rooduijn provides insights into the intertwining of civilizational populism, nationalism, and their resonance with the Dutch public. The interview further explores the relationship between populism and Euroscepticism in Dutch politics, emphasizing Wilders’ hard-Eurosceptic position and its significance in the broader European context.

Dr. Rooduijn sheds light on the role of social media in the success and visibility of populist radical right parties, acknowledging its transformative impact on political communication. Analyzing the recent Dutch elections on November 22nd, he highlights the unexpected shift in the political landscape and underscores the challenges in forming a government coalition.

Looking forward to the European Parliament elections in June 2024, Dr. Rooduijn expresses concern about the potential surge of populist parties, emphasizing the discordance between their ideas and liberal democratic principles. The interview concludes by addressing the challenges faced by populist radical right movements in maintaining long-term political relevance, particularly the stigma associated with Wilders’ party and its impact on recruiting candidates for political positions.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Dr. Matthijs Rooduijn with minor edits.

How would you characterize the key features of populist radical right movements, both in Western Europe generally and specifically in the Dutch political landscape? In your analysis, how do these features manifest in the context of Geert Wilders’ political ideology, and what societal and political factors have contributed to the rise and sustained presence of populist radical right parties in the Netherlands?

Matthijs Rooduijn: To address the first question, let’s focus on the definition of the populist radical right. I adhere to Cas Mudde’s definition, which identifies nativism as the core feature. Nativism is an exclusionary form of nationalism, where parties center their focus on the nation. Consequently, they argue that elements or people not compatible with the nation pose a threat. This can manifest in various ways, such as antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-immigration attitudes, and racism – all expressions of in-group and out-group thinking. This thinking places the nation as the in-group and others as the out-group, forming the core of the radical right.

Furthermore, radical right parties exhibit authoritarian tendencies, advocating for a highly ordered society. They believe that severe punishment should be meted out to those who break the law. This authoritarianism is another core aspect of the radical right. Additionally, these parties adopt a populist stance, emphasizing a group of people, typically portraying ordinary citizens as betrayed, corrupted, or ignored by an evil elite. This elite can be political, cultural, or media-related. Populism is often an integral part of the program for these populist radical right parties. Geert Wilders’ party serves as a prototypical example, distinguishing itself with a particularly strong anti-Islam component. This summarizes the essence of the populist radical right and Wilders’ program.

Substantial Segment of the Population Are Potential Voters for the Populist Radical Right

Dr. Matthijs Rooduijn, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam.

Considering the international context, are there similarities or differences between the populist radical right movements in the Netherlands, led by figures like Geert Wilders, and those in other European countries?

Matthijs Rooduijn: Yes, there are both similarities and differences. The type of leader varies significantly from country to country. Wilders differs markedly from Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, or Giorgia Meloni. What they share is their ideology. Economic circumstances, party systems, and media landscapes also differ. However, what’s common across most of these countries, and beyond, is a fertile breeding ground for the success of these parties. In Western Europe and elsewhere, there’s a substantial portion of the electorate that leans right on cultural issues, supporting more restrictive immigration policies, often coupled with a general sense of discontent with politics. This sentiment is prevalent in almost all European countries.

The success of populist radical right movements hinges on their ability to tap into this sentiment and discontent and convince voters to vote for them. So, there is a substantial segment of the population that represents potential voters for the populist radical right. The crucial differentiator is the extent to which politicians can effectively appeal to and persuade these voters, influenced by wider contextual factors such as media coverage and actions of other political parties. Success, therefore, really depends on the circumstances surrounding these parties.

Can you discuss any notable shifts or developments in the public perception of populist radical right ideologies in the Netherlands, particularly in relation to Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV), and how have these shifts influenced their electoral performance?

Matthijs Rooduijn: So, you’re inquiring about how voters, parties, and media perceive Geert Wilders over the years and the changes in this perception. Broadly, the rhetoric of the far-right has undergone a significant normalization in the Netherlands, a trend not exclusive to the country but observed globally. For instance, in 2002, right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn faced vehement criticism for his perceived radicalism, even being labeled an extremist. However, a comparison of his statements from two decades ago with Geert Wilders’ current rhetoric reveals Fortuyn as relatively moderate. This shift highlights the extent to which the general discourse in the Netherlands has moved towards the radical right.

Academic studies support this observation, indicating that mainstream right parties, both in the Netherlands and elsewhere, have adjusted their election programs towards the radical right. While they haven’t transformed into radical right parties, there has been a noticeable directional shift. This trend is echoed in the general discourse on immigration and identity issues, showcasing a movement towards the radical right’s framing of relevant topics.

Notably, during the recent election campaign, there was a shift in how Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) were portrayed by other parties. After approximately a decade of exclusion by mainstream right parties, Wilders was actively or passively presented as a negotiable political figure during this campaign. The mainstream right party opened the door to potential collaboration with Wilders in a government coalition, contributing to the normalization of the PVV. In conclusion, the normalization of far-right ideas is a prevailing trend not only in the Netherlands but also on a global scale. This normalization extends to both the ideas associated with the far-right and the PVV party led by Geert Wilders.

Geert Wilders Is Very Islamophobic

Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) are often associated with anti-immigration policies. Could you provide insights into how his stance on immigration fits into the broader populist radical right narrative in the Netherlands?

Matthijs Rooduijn: Geert Wilders’ primary focus is on Islam, he is very Islamophobic, and he holds strong Islamophobic views, advocating for the prohibition of the Quran, Islamic schools, and headscarves—issues that have consistently been at the core of his agenda. While these concerns are now intertwined with broader topics like asylum and immigration, they remain distinctive aspects that set Wilders apart from other far-right parties in the Netherlands. For example, the Forum for Democracy (FvD) led by Thierry Baudet also embraces a nativist ideology but places less emphasis on Islam. Similarly, Right Answer 2021 (JA21), another populist radical right party, does not prioritize Islam to the same degree.

During the recent election campaign, Wilders asserted that Islam was not his primary concern at that moment, highlighting immigration and housing as more pressing issues. However, he simultaneously affirmed that Islam remains an integral part of his party’s DNA. Notably, he did not retract any elements from his election program, which unequivocally outlines his stance on Islam. In essence, while nativism constitutes a fundamental element of the populist radical right ideology, Wilders’ specific expression of nativism is rooted in Islamophobia, complemented by general negative attitudes toward immigration and asylum.

How does the relationship between civilizational populism and nationalism play out in the context of Geert Wilders’ political discourse, and to what extent does it resonate with the Dutch public?

Matthijs Rooduijn: Geert Wilders’ nationalism is fundamentally expressed in his views on Islam, asylum, and immigration. He advocates for closed doors and borders, and exclusionary policies, with a primary focus on Islam, Muslims, and cultural symbols like headscarves. This specific form of exclusionary nationalism is a defining feature of his political program. During the recent election campaign, he strongly emphasized these aspects, which remain integral to his party’s identity and are referred to as its DNA.

Wilders’ Hard-Euroscepticism Surpasses the Eurosceptic Rhetoric of Many Other Far-right Parties in Europe

How has the relationship between populism and Euroscepticism played out in Dutch politics, particularly within the context of populist radical right movements?

Matthijs Rooduijn: We observe that most radical right parties tend to be Eurosceptic, although there are instances where some actors within the radical right may display a less overt form of Euroscepticism, framing it as a defense of Europe against external threats. However, Euroscepticism has been a consistent element in the programs of almost all radical right parties, especially in Western Europe, including Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom. Wilders’ Euroscepticism is multifaceted, encompassing resistance to European elites and technocrats in Brussels, which he perceives as threatening Dutch identity and impeding the nation’s self-determination. This Eurosceptic stance incorporates cultural, identity-related, and political arguments, emphasizing the perceived erosion of national identity by Brussels and the loss of citizens’ control over important matters. 

Additionally, there’s an economic dimension to Wilders’ Euroscepticism, contending that excessive funds are being directed to other countries. Notably, his program advocates for the Netherlands’ exit from the EU, although the feasibility of this stands in contrast to the positions of other parties he is currently negotiating with, making it unlikely. The prospect of compromise on this issue might emerge if he becomes part of a government coalition. Despite this, it remains intriguing that Wilders maintains a hard-Euroscepticism in his election program, surpassing the Eurosceptic rhetoric of many other far-right parties in Europe.

Can you discuss the role of social media and communication strategies in the success and visibility of populist radical right parties in the Netherlands?

Matthijs Rooduijn: I have limited expertise on the subject of social media, as it falls outside my area of study. While I am aware that Geert Wilders is actively engaged on platforms like Twitter or X, I do not know to what extent social media have really helped to his success. In general, it could be argued that social media provides populist politicians, including Wilders, with a direct means of communication with their followers. In Wilders’ case, he has a sizable and devoted following, allowing him to communicate directly with a large segment of the population. This shift in the mode of communication with followers has undergone significant changes over the last two decades. While acknowledging its importance to Wilders, I cannot conclusively assess the specific role played by social media in his success during this election campaign.

Wilders Potentially Being Part of the Gov’t and Assuming the Role of PM Could Impact Int’l Relations

Can you explain what happened on the night of November 22nd in terms of populism in the Netherlands, populism in Europe, and populism across the globe?

Matthijs Rooduijn: What we have witnessed in the Netherlands is a remarkable and unexpected shift in the political landscape. Just a few weeks ago, it wasn’t anticipated that Wilders would emerge victorious in the elections. The last week of the campaign brought about significant changes. A noteworthy revelation is that one in four Dutch voters cast their ballots for a populist radical right party, indicating an unprecedented size for this party family. This figure becomes even more substantial when considering other radical right parties. Interestingly, voters, including Conservative Liberals, have contributed to the increased support for the PVV. It’s worth noting that some of these votes may be strategic and may not necessarily translate into enduring support for the PVV.

While the victory of the far-right is a significant development, the dynamics of forming a government coalition remain uncertain and complex. Predicting the outcome is challenging due to the absence of clear rules, allowing for various possible scenarios. The consequences of Wilders potentially being part of the government and assuming the role of Prime Minister extend beyond the Netherlands and could impact international relations. Additionally, it may influence how mainstream parties in other European countries approach populist radical right parties.

Simultaneously, when considering elections, it’s evident that, in most countries, the issues that resonate with voters on a national level play a pivotal role. The focus tends to be primarily on domestic matters, with international politics having a lesser impact. However, the upcoming European elections in June 2024 will be intriguing to watch. The strong performance of populist radical right parties in polls, not only in the Netherlands but also in other countries, indicates a noteworthy trend. While some projections for these parties in Poland and Spain fell short of expectations, the overall trajectory remains significant.

It’s crucial to recognize the significance of what transpired in the Netherlands. Yet, it’s essential to acknowledge that this represents a single moment in time. The election outcome could have unfolded differently with minor variations in the circumstances within the country. This emphasizes the fluid and contingent nature of political events.

Regarding the upcoming European Parliament elections, how concerned are you about the potential surge and victory of populist parties in Europe?

Matthijs Rooduijn: Undoubtedly, there is a substantial number of voters drawn to these parties. However, what is particularly concerning are their ideas, as several of them are not in harmony with liberal democracy, especially concerning minority rights, checks and balances, pluralism, and freedom of the media etc… This poses a significant problem. We have witnessed the consequences of such ideologies in countries like Hungary, Poland, and others in Europe. If a populist radical right party gains significant influence or becomes the most powerful actor in a government, it could have detrimental effects on liberal democracy. This is indeed a matter of serious concern.

Mainstream Parties Have Substantially Integrated the Discourse of Populist Radical Right Parties

What impact has the populist radical right had on the overall political discourse and policy agenda in the Netherlands, and how has it influenced the mainstream political parties? Or can we safely say that PVV has now been a mainstream party, and its discourse on immigration, the Moroccans, Islam, and the EU has been mainstream as well?

Matthijs Rooduijn: As mentioned earlier, mainstream parties have substantially integrated the discourse of populist radical right parties, and this is evident in the media landscape as well. The views expressed by figures like Pim Fortuyn, which were once considered radical, have now become relatively mainstream. Thus, the discourse of the far-right has been normalized, and mainstream parties have, to a certain extent, legitimized the arguments put forth by populist radical right parties. However, it would be inaccurate to claim that the populist radical right has become more mainstream in the sense of becoming more moderate. That’s not the case. On the contrary, it’s the mainstream parties that have shifted towards more radical positions. Over time, if we analyze the trajectory of populist radical right parties in Europe, they remain as radical as ever. While Geert Wilders may have projected a more moderate image during these elections, his election program retained its radical core. Similarly, in the case of Marine Le Pen in France, despite efforts to present a more moderate image, the National Rally (FN) remains a fundamentally populist radical right party. Therefore, any moderation observed tends to be more in the presentation style rather than a shift in the core elements of their political programs.

In your view, what are the main challenges faced by populist radical right movements in maintaining long-term political relevance, and how has Geert Wilders navigated these challenges in the Dutch political context?

Matthijs Rooduijn: I believe the primary challenge currently confronting Wilders is the persistent stigma attached to his party, making it challenging for him to garner support from other politicians. Despite securing a considerable number of votes, many political figures are hesitant to align themselves with the PVV. This reluctance poses a significant obstacle in recruiting candidates for political positions. For example, with 45 individuals on his list, a total of 37 were elected, leaving Wilders with only 8 potential replacements. In the event that some individuals assume ministerial roles in the government, he may encounter difficulty finding adequate replacements. The scarcity of willing individuals willing to be associated with him and the PVV makes it particularly challenging to identify suitable candidates for ministerial or significant political roles. Compounding this issue is the fact that Wilders faces personnel challenges due to the absence of party members; he is the sole member of his party and harbors trust issues with his colleagues in the PVV. This personnel shortage remains a considerable hurdle, even after his 17 years in politics.

Lastly, you counted anti-semitism as one of the basic features of populist parties. In the case of Geert Wilders, it is not the case. He is pro-Israeli. How do you explain this?

Matthijs Rooduijn: Antisemitism is not necessarily part of their program. What is part of the program is nativism, and nativism can express itself in different ways. It can manifest as antisemitism but also as Islamophobia, and that is how it is articulated in Wilders’ case. Nativism represents a broader framework of in-group and out-group thinking, centering around the nation versus dangerous others. When discussing antisemitism, the dangerous others are Jews. In contrast, when addressing Islamophobia, the dangerous others are Muslims, or, as Wilders argues, Islam as an extremist ideology. Thus, antisemitism is one manifestation through which nativism can express itself. However, Wilders is not antisemitic; he is Islamophobic. Therefore, it’s a distinct form of nativism, representing a different way in which his nativism finds expression.

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