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Geert Wilders: heir apparent to an anxious nation

The election of a populist has shocked The Netherlands. Wim Houtman unpacks the result and explores anxious attitudes among electors, particularly Christians.

Wim Houtman is a senior editor with Nederlands Dagblad, a Christian daily newspaper in the Netherlands.

A politician in a suit stands amid a scrum of reporters holding microphones
Geert Wilders is at the centre of media attention in The Netherlands.

Much has been made in recent years of the similarity in appearance - their hair dos especially - between Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Geert Wilders. All three sport this striking blond head of hair, invariably cut in the same style - be it with loosely non-conformist locks or carefully eccentric waves. 

It’s their trademark, it sets them apart - instantly recognizable. And it sends a message: Here is a leader who stands out, who doesn’t care what is ‘normal’ or ‘accepted’ or what others may think; he knows what he wants, he knows what you want and he will go for it. 

Until a fortnight ago, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was the leader of a relatively minor party on the far right, with a strong anti-Islam, anti-immigration agenda. His populist Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) had been around since 2006, hovering between 6 and 16 per cent of the vote. But suddenly, on November 22nd, he scored a whopping 24 per cent, becoming the largest party with 37 seats in the Lower House of the Dutch parliament, way ahead of the runner-up, the left-wing alliance of social democrats and greens at 25 seats. 

In the Dutch electoral system, this automatically gives Geert Wilders the lead in forming a new government. And here the problem starts. 

Now he wants to cash in on his victory to finally and decisively put his stamp on the country’s policies. At 60 years old, it may well be his last chance. 

So far, his party has been a wallflower in the political arena. Other parties have found his standpoints too extreme to bring on board. Today, however, looks very different. As the leader of the largest political party, Geert Wilders seems destined to become Prime Minister - at least he himself claims so. It would seem like going against the will of the people to stand in his way. But still, most other parties are reluctant to work with him.  

In its leader comment the morning after, the Dutch Christian daily newspaper Nederlands Dagblad recalled what kind of party and what kind of leader the country had just elected to be its next PM: 

‘Geert Wilders, who for years on end has branded democratically elected colleagues traitors to their country and a fake parliament. Who called the rule of law ‘corrupted’, after he had been persecuted and fined for collective insult. Who for years on end has hatefully offended entire sections of the population, because of their faith (Muslims) or their origin (Moroccan, Eastern European etc). Who wants to abolish religious freedom, leave the European Union, do away with the euro, end the military support to Ukraine, post soldiers along the nation’s borders, ban headscarves, disband climate policy and energy transition. Who wants to revert the apologies the King made last July for the nation’s slavery record. And so on, and so on.’ 

In the run-up to these latest elections, Mr Wilders ran a brilliant campaign in which he presented himself in a more moderate way, and pledged if he won, to be ‘the Prime Minister of all Dutch people’ - leaving aside the question what a person needs to qualify for being ‘Dutch’. Now he wants to cash in on his victory to finally and decisively put his stamp on the country’s policies. At 60 years old, it may well be his last chance. 

But if he is to lead the next government, and be successful at it, he will need to go through no less than a ‘deradicalisation programme’, the Nederlands Dagblad commentator wrote: ‘That’s the kind of test you can pass, but also fail.’ 

From Dutch Christians, you might say, the response to the first election victory of a populist party came in stages. 

At first, many of them were shocked, dismayed, and anxious. Their faith prompted them to strive for a government that will reach out to the poor, respect minority rights, care for the environment and welcome refugees. They had always known that Mr Wilders and his party had totally opposite ideas. But they had never expected him to gain any real political influence. Now, it felt as if they had woken up in a different country. 

But once some of the dust had settled down, there came room for other considerations, too. Surely not all 2.4 million PVV voters could be classified as extremists. The size of its electorate puts it rather in the range of a mainstream conservative party. Many people had voted for Mr Wilders out of disillusionment with the established parties who had governed the country for decades - and rightly so. 

It is one thing to say we must welcome asylum seekers, but it is another when you can’t find a place to live, because there is a shortage of affordable housing and refugees seem to get priority. It is one thing to say the government is there to support people who need help, but it is another when you experience you’re immediately suspected of fraud when you apply for a benefit. 

So Christian voters, like the general public, seem divided: some are shocked by the election result, others feel that their concerns have finally been heard. 

Up until 1967 Christian political parties had a majority in the Dutch parliament. Their support has shrunk steadily, but at this election it fell from 15 per cent in 2021 to no more than 7 per cent. And yes, some of their voters defected to the populist PVV.  

‘We have loved the stranger more than ourselves’, explained one of them in the Nederlands Dagblad newspaper. ‘It is better to begin at yourself; from there you can help the world. That’s what Mr Wilders stands for’.  

‘What decided it for me was the insight that this country needs real change’, commented another. ‘Not just some minor adjustments, but a firm pull to the right: a stronger policy on law and order, critical on the growing influence from Europe, battling poverty in our own country.’ Several Christians mentioned they had voted PVV because Mr Wilders is a keen supporter of Israel; they were worried about the anti-semitic tones in some quite noisy pro-Palestinian demonstrations because of the war in Gaza. 

So Christian voters, like the general public, seem divided: some are shocked by the election result, others feel that their concerns have finally been heard. 

The surprising election result seems to leave the country - and Christians in particular - with a couple of nagging questions. 

How to avoid stigmatizing PVV voters, and recognize that their problems are real and deserve solutions that are real? 

How to convince them that a party that has some anti-democratic tendencies and lives in denial of the big international and environmental crises cannot be the solution? And that care for the environment, refugees and the poor are authentic components of the Christian story, and not just after all of our own personal needs have been met? 

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10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.