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May 19, 2017

When Hate Becomes Mainstream

On Sunday May 21, Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch far-right politician, is scheduled to  speak in Los Angles at the annual dinner of the American Freedom Alliance, a group designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group. Wilders, who tweeted that he will speak about “the danger of Islam and the need to de-Islamize our nations in order to stay free,” seems to be a natural fit with the American Freedom Alliance, whose mission is to “identify threats to Western civilization and to motivate, educate, and unite citizens in support of that cause.” This alliance demonstrates how important political trends in the United State and Europe continue to overlap.

Wilders, President Trump, Marine Le Pen, and other populists have created narratives around national identity rooted in an exclusively defined “us” versus a perceived “them” (today, usually Muslims, immigrants, or others defined by race, religion, or ethnicity). They promise to reclaim their country for its “true” citizens.   

Wilders’s electoral loss in the Netherlands’ March 15 general election—which was not a foregone conclusion—was celebrated by some as a triumph of tolerance over bigotry and the downfall of populism. If only it were so simple. In the run-up to the election, Wilders largely set the terms of the Netherlands’ national debate, succeeding in mainstreaming policies rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry. Even though Wilders lost, his message—of xenophobia, nationalism, and Euroskepticism—will continue to shape Dutch politics for years to come.

Wilders is well known for (and is unabashedly outspoken about) his anti-Islam and anti-immigration agenda. His Twitter banner reads, “Stop Islam. #PVV2017.” Wilders believes that Islam is inherently a totalitarian political ideology. Though he conveniently conflates refugees with Muslims and Muslims with terrorists, Muslims seem to be only the latest in a long line of scapegoats in his anti-immigrant ideology.

In 2012, Wilders set up a website to gather complaints against Eastern and Central Europeans living in the Netherlands. This move is eerily similar to Trump’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, or VOICE, a bureau within the Department of Homeland Security that Trump authorized to monitor crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

In the United States, Trump’s victory energized hate groups, who felt that in the new president they had a mainstream political leader who would at long last give momentum to their racist and xenophobic vision. One white nationalist group openly held a rally in Washington, D.C. celebrating Trump’s victory. Several of Trump’s policies, like VOICE and his proposed ban on immigrants and refugees from majority-Muslim countries, have appealed to fringe constituencies largely through bolstering a narrative of “us” versus “them.”

Trump’s selections for key administration positions complement his populist policies. Steve Bannon, former executive chair of Breitbart news, a site that promotes racist, antisemitic, and white nationalist ideologies, serves as chief strategist and senior counselor to Trump. Sebastian Gorka, who has ties Hungarian far-right, antisemitic groups and equates Islam with terrorism, serves as a senior advisor on counterterrorism. Two former members of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant hate group, were recently appointed to administration posts. Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of FAIR, was named the Ombudsman for Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security. Kris Kobach, an attorney for FAIR, was appointed to lead a new commission to study voter fraud.

Hate has become a mainstream political tool on both sides of the Atlantic. And while the far right has suffered electoral losses in the Netherlands and France, make no mistake, leaders of these groups still see a fight ahead—and they are forging connections to their American counterparts to strengthen their global movement. It’s time those fighting for tolerance do the same.