The far-right leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), Geert Wilders, was convicted by a Dutch court last week of violating anti-discrimination laws during an election rally in 2014.
The trial centered on an incident in The Hague where Wilders asked a crowd whether they wanted fewer or more Moroccans in the country, leading to chants of “Fewer!Fewer!” to which Wilders replied,“We’re going to organize that.”
Following the verdict, Wilders released an English-language YouTube video denouncing his conviction as a crackdown on free speech by the “multi-cultural elite,” and declaring, “The Dutch want their country back.”
The trial and verdict have only boosted support for the controversial far-right leader, with the PVV leading in national polls and forecasted to overtake its rivals in Holland’s election next March.
His conviction will also inevitably polarize debate over the distinction between hate speech and free speech – which differs markedly in the United States and Europe – and boost elements of the far-right, many of whom revel in liberal indignation at prejudiced opinions and rail against the ‘political correctness’ of progressive discourse.
Like other far-right politicians in Europe, Wilders is an opportunist who has capitalized on rising anti-immigration sentiment – with a particular focus on Islam. He has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, a ban on the Quran – which he compared to Mein Kampf – and vowed to close all mosques in Holland. Last month, he Tweeted that Muslim immigration “will replace our people, erase our culture, end our freedom.”
Such fear-mongering is a key staple of the far-right in Europe, of which Wilders has been a longtime fixture. Since Trump’s rise to power, Wilders has joined an emerging alliance of far-right, populist voices and was featured in a lineup of white supremacists and Islamophobes at the Republican National Convention this July, which included white nationalist extremist Richard Spencer and renowned Islamophobe Pamela Geller.
While it is undeniable that, in 2016, political discourse, buoyed by populist sentiment, has descended into open bigotry and xenophobia, it is unclear how best to combat it. Wilders’ conviction for hate speech will inevitably cast him as an anti-establishment martyr in the eyes of his supporters and reinforce the view that liberal metropolitan elites refuse to recognize the so-called realities of immigration.
Yet logical, fact-driven debate is also anathema to xenophobic populism, leaving no obvious strategy on how to combat a form of political discourse that was once on the fringes, but has in a short time led Britain to vote to leave the EU, propelled Trump to the White House, and may well carry Wilders to victory in Dutch elections next year.