WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump might do the world a perverse favor. Voters in Western Europe appear to be looking at what America has brought upon itself and deciding: “We sure as heck don’t want to go there.”
Thus did the Netherlands slap back the ethno-nationalist far right in its elections last week. The forces of tolerance and openness bent but didn’t break. It was a good sign for the year’s next two big electoral tests, in France and Germany.
There was always some hype in the commentariat’s obsession with Geert Wilders, the viciously anti-Muslim leader whose party managed only 13 percent of the vote in the Dutch elections. He was never going to form the next government and had already begun sagging at the campaign’s end.
Still, hold the Champagne. It’s troubling that someone as extreme as Wilders (imagine a more malicious version of Trump) would get as many votes as he did.
Moreover, the two big conservative parties, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), embraced more hostile rhetoric toward the country’s large Muslim community to appease backlash voters.
This worked in keeping enough of them away from Wilders, but at the cost of moving the country’s political conversation well to the right. According to the latest count, Rutte’s party emerged as the leader in the 150-member Parliament with 33 seats, a loss of eight. Wilders won 20, gaining five. The CDA was well-rewarded for its escalating toughness on immigrants with six additional seats, and a new right-wing party, the Forum for Democracy, won two. Overall the right gained five seats. Many Dutch voters opted for what might be called a softer hard line.
On the left, politics was transformed. The election was a disaster for the practical, moderate social democrats of the Labor Party (PvdA). As coalition partners in Rutte’s government, Labor endorsed his austerity policies, angering progressive voters.
So while the more left-wing (and out-of-power) Socialist Party lost only one of its 15 seats, the PvdA collapsed to a mere 5.7 percent of the vote, and shed all but nine of its 38 seats. How much of an earthquake is this? Consider that at its most recent peak in 1986, the party secured a third of the vote and 52 seats.
But the bulk of those losses were redistributed to other left and left-liberal parties. (The left, on net, was down seven seats.) The true outsider winner in this election was not Wilders but Jesse Klaver, the leader of the GreenLeft Party whose representation in Parliament more than tripled, from four seats to 14. The left-liberals of the Democrats 66 party also gained ground, up seven seats to 19. And a Turkish breakaway party from Labor, Denk (Dutch for “Think,” Turkish for “Equality”), took three.
The Greens’ Klaver, just 30, did well by being the most charismatic and uncompromising opponent of Wilders’ brand of nationalism. He argued that liberals and the left, not the far right, were the true defenders of Dutch traditions and “the values the Netherlands stands for … its freedom, its tolerance, its empathy.”
If Wilders made identity the issue in this election, urban liberals and progressives countered by insisting on their own definition of what it means to be Dutch – and, in the case of Denk, by standing up for minority rights. This new politics of self-expression will make life difficult for traditional parties on the left whose stock-in-trade was the bread-and-butter politics of jobs and incomes.
France, which elects a new president in April, and Germany, expected to vote in the fall, could deliver the next blows to the far right.
In France, the old French Socialist Party, like its comrades in the PvdA, is flagging, eclipsed by Emmanuel Macron, a slightly-left-tilting centrist who appeals to urban liberals. He’s running ahead of the far right’s Marine Le Pen. In Germany, the new leader of the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, has catapulted his once ailing party into a close race with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. That’s why Merkel, whose own moderation has looked more attractive in light of Trump, tread carefully when she met with the president on Friday.
If Macron and Schulz were both to win, a moderately social democratic Europe would get another chance. This would be the biggest shock of a year that began with fears of a far right on the march. And Macron and Schulz share something important with Rutte: All three owe a great deal to the negative example of Donald Trump.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.