The last week may well have been the closest Dutch politics ever comes to Yes Minister. It’s hard to resist the image of Sir Humphrey bringing Mark Rutte his morning newspapers on Tuesday: ‘Well, Prime Minister, your letter to the people has certainly set tongues wagging. You’ve even made it into the New York Times.’ ‘Good,’ replies Rutte, ‘That means they’re taking notice of me as a global statesman.’ At which Sir Humphrey grimaces faintly, observes: ‘They’ve certainly taken notice, Prime Minster’, and hands his boss the paper.
The NYT’s assessment that Rutte had taken a ‘Trump-like’ turn in the election campaign is not the kind of publicity the prime minister was seeking. It is also wide of the mark: Rutte’s language was some way short of Trump’s fire-and-brimstone tirades against Muslims and Mexicans. Geert Wilders is the Trump card among Dutch politicians and will defend that position vigorously, as he demonstrated with a video response in which he told the prime minister to ‘stop deceiving your own people’. But the difference is increasingly one of tone. Rutte’s letter ‘to all Dutch people’ purported to be about anti-social behaviour, but the examples he cited were concentrated on a particular section of society: ‘people who abuse our freedom to wreck the place when they came to our country for that very same freedom.’ The list of abuses – homophobia, heckling women in short skirts and ‘making ordinary Dutch people out to be racists’ – was a clear dog-whistle to voters who, in Rutte’s reckoning, have been drawn to the Freedom Party by Wilders’s siren calls on immigration.
Later in the week Rutte tried to dispel the backlash in the NYT and elsewhere (an academic quoted in the Washington Post accused him of resorting to ‘thinly veiled nativism’) by insisting that he was referring to anti-social behaviour from all quarters, ‘black or white, Islamic or Christian, homosexual or hetero, a migrant or someone who’s been here for generations.’ But his letter was far less equivocal; even the tagline – ‘Act normal or go away’ – presupposed that the troublemakers had another home to go to. Rutte invoked the Marokkanenprobleem in all but name, in a specious game of charades. Some commentators ventured that the prime minister needed to intervene to stop Wilders hijacking the debate on migration. The flaw in that argument is that we passed that point some time ago. Wilders already dominates the tone and language to an alarming degree, and echoing his rhetoric, even in milder form, will shunt the axis of debate further into PVV territory.
The puzzling thing is what Rutte thought he could gain from imitating Wilders. Why should voters settle for a pale imitation of the PVV leader when they can choose the real thing? What does Rutte do now when Wilders ratchets the emotion up another notch? Does he follow him into the high branches or climb back down? In a fact-free debate, the guy with the fewest facts holds the advantage. That was the obvious lesson to be taken from Trump.
The most disappointing element of Rutte’s letter was the narrow, insular character of his definition of freedom. It fits with his managerialist mindset and belief that having “no vision” is a political asset, but it is a dismal aspect nonetheless. The country that led the way in legalising gay marriage and has distinguished itself with an innovative, single-minded approach to social policy on a string of issues ranging from soft drugs and prostitution to the rehabilitation of prisoners is reduced to admonishing people for not shaking hands at a job interview.
It was a refreshing contrast, later in the week, to see Lilianne Ploumen, Rutte’s international development minister, launch an international development fund for charities whose work supporting vulnerable women in third world countries had been imperilled by Donald Trump’s dogmatic ban on funding pro-abortion organisations. ‘The Netherlands has a long tradition of standing up for sexual and reproductive rights,’ said Ploumen. Those are the values that are conspicuously missing from Rutte’s tirade, yet they have earned the Dutch many friends and much respect in the global community in the past. Ploumen’s initiative generated the kind of headlines around the world that Rutte would push people off tall buildings for. Perhaps, in the Trump era, European politicians will rediscover their appetite for championing progressive, free and democratic values around the world and, instead of building walls or telling people to go away, will ask: ‘how can we help?’