Donald Trump, the Classic European Candidate
AP Photo/Antonio Calanni
Donald Trump, the Classic European Candidate
AP Photo/Antonio Calanni
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American populism has a European streak - or perhaps it is the other way around. The way Donald Trump and his supporters operate is very much like on The Old Continent, right down to the seemingly incomprehensible contradictions. What may unite them is that many of their own supporters don't actually want them to have real power.

Like in Europe, many followers of Trump-like populists have not been seen in voting booths for years, sometimes decades. Like in Europe, after polls suggest that these followers will turn up to vote, many on Election Day don't, leading to surprise losses when results come in.

In the Netherlands one politician is once again riding high in the polls, outrunning all others by wide margins. Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party has for months outpaced all other figures with his tough talk on immigrants, Muslims, the European Union, and the establishment elite.

Like Trump, Wilders is a loner with an authoritarian streak. He doesn't have a party organization. He has a name for his movement, and by law he's been forced to set up a legal infrastructure, a foundation, in order to be allowed to take part in elections. But he is the only real member. He doesn't want the hassle of having to listen to, and deal with, other members. In-depth reporting by journalists with sources close to Wilders -- sources who have revealed hundreds of internal emails, Whatsapp and SMS conversations between them and Wilders -- show that he does not want, and does not like, a democratic party process.

Like Trump's boosters, Wilders' voters don't seem to care what he says. The more extreme, the better. In recent years he proposed cutting up the Quran and "trimming it down to the size of a Donald Duck comic." He also proposed to levy something literally translated as "a towelhead tax" (kopvoddentaks), an extra tax to be paid by Muslim women wearing a headscarf. Recently Wilders called to effectively deport Dutch of Moroccan descent, and he called the Dutch Parliament "a fake parliament" as, considering his support in the polls, it no longer reflects the will of the people.

Like Trump, Wilders' supporters are disgusted by the establishment elite, even though he and Trump are in every sense and for all purposes very much a part of it.

Wilders has been in Parliament for most of his career. He used to work as an assistant to the leader of one of the biggest center-right parties, and he was even a mentor to the current prime minister, who was at that time a backbencher. Wilders then became an Member of Parliament. In all, he had been part of the establishment for 12 years before he walked out of his party, the Liberals, known by the Dutch acronym VVD, taking his parliamentary seat with him and establishing his own party.

Platform-wise, he followed in the footsteps of the harbinger of modern Dutch populism, Pim Fortuyn, someone who probably resembles Donald Trump still more than does Wilders. Fortuyn shot to fame in 2001 and 2002, railing against immigration, the "fifth column of Islam," and what he termed "the bankruptcy of multiculturalism."

Fortuyn attracted the same crowd Wilders does. The similarities between Fortuyn and Trump voters are also striking. But where Fortuyn also viciously attacked the establishment elite, he, like Trump, was very much a part of it.

Fortuyn was a professor and civil servant in the late 1980s and the 1990s, working for various government ministries. He also shopped parties. Before he decided to head up his own party, he had been a member of almost every party represented in Parliament, but left each one due to his brawling nature. His political convictions seemed fluid; he changed left-wing, centrist, and hard-right parties as if they were undergarments.

Like Trump, he had done quite well for himself, mostly thanks to projects won from the establishment he would later despise. So successful he was, that in the early 2000s he lived in a spacious villa he named the Palazzo di Pietro, in one of the most expensive quarters of the Hague, the government capital. He had his own butler and was driven around in his Bentley by a chauffeur. He loved dining in expensive restaurants, and even though he professed to be an unabashed nationalist, Fortuyn was buried in Italy per his will after an extremist animal-rights activist killed him.

What unites populists like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, and Pim Fortuyn -- as well as Marine Le Pen of France's Front National -- is that they seem to defy Marshall McLuhan's truism that "the medium is the message," when applied to persons. It is not the elitist, establishment backgrounds that determine them, but the content of their message.

Perhaps this is another feature that unites them: Like Geert Wilders, Donald Trump's political communication strategy is dependent on his message being distributed by mass media, and then hoping that enough voters will turn out. But that's not enough. It hasn't worked for Wilders. Compared to the polls, Wilders underperformed in every recent election. Trump, too, looked destined to win the Iowa Republican caucus, according to polls, but lost to another candidate who had invested in a ground game.

The populists' authoritarian, go-it-alone streak has thus far proven to be their weak spot. They activate a long-dormant, turned-off electorate, but they fail to realize that it takes more to get people to the voting booth. The question is, why?

Thorough Dutch post-election focus group research performed over the years may provide a hint.

It turns out that even at the height of Fortuyn's popularity, relatively few of his supporters wanted to see him actually become prime minister. The same goes for Geert Wilders. Their voters liked the messages, but when it came to the content of their character, judged by questions about their perceived leadership abilities, other politicians scored better.

So populists seem to be carriers of messages, and not much else. Does this mean that those messages will fade, like their bearers inevitably do? No. It appears that, in the longer term, they do make a difference, exactly as their voters intended.

Many Dutch established parties have over the years copied the principles put forward by Fortuyn and Wilders on immigration and integration. Most parties have taken on tough positions on those matters, either out of pure expediency or because of leadership changes. Fortuyn and Wilders have managed to change the conversation much as right-wing conservative Republicans did in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently as the Tea Party did.

The question this raises is whether the United States will in the long term actually build a huge wall along the Mexican border and stop Muslim immigration.

(AP photo)

Kaj Leers (1975) is a former financial journalist, election campaign analyst, political communications strategist and spokesman. Specializing on international affairs, Leers writes for RealClearWorld on European political affairs, the European Union, campaign strategy and macro-economics. COuntries in focus: The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom. Follow him on (mostly Dutch, oftentimes in English).