'This Is Exactly What He Wants': How Geert Wilders Won by Losing
The Dutch populist never really wanted to become prime minister, according to his brother.
Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders lost by a significant margin in Wednesday’s elections, but his brother said the Netherlands shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate: Losing was exactly what Wilders wanted. And, although his Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) was overtaken by the ruling center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), Wilders still poses a grave threat.
In fact, according to Paul Wilders, losing the bid to become prime minister may be the optimal electoral outcome for Geert, who has campaigned on a platform of leaving the European Union, tolerating “fewer Moroccans,” imposing a “head rag tax” on hijab-wearing women, and paying settled Muslims to leave the Netherlands—promises on which it would be difficult to deliver.
At age 62, Paul is nine years Geert’s senior. In 2008, he spoke out against his little brother after Geert made a 15-minute film called Fitna, in which he claimed that the Quran motivates Muslims to hate all those who violate Islamic teachings. Paul spoke out again last December, when Geert tweeted a picture of Angela Merkel splattered with blood, following the death of 14 people in a terror attack at a Berlin Christmas market. The brothers haven’t spoken since.
Paul spoke to me about what his brother was like as a child, how he developed into “the Dutch Trump” (as he is sometimes known today), and what’s next for him now that the elections are over. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Stefanie Marsh: How do you think Geert Wilders is feeling about his election loss?
Paul Wilders: He’d have liked a larger win, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect to score as low as he did. His party will be in a panic. But all in all, he’s still in a strong position of opposition and this is exactly what he wants—he doesn’t want to be prime minister.
It would be a big mistake to conclude this is all over now. It isn’t. Not by a very long way. Because, in the end, the only reason Geert lost votes this time around was because it became clear to voters that they were betting on the wrong horse. [Some] agreed with his views, but knew, in the run-up to the election, that he wasn’t going to make it. The smaller [right-wing] parties, who won a lot of votes off the PVV, express themselves in less extreme language. Particularly the Forum For Democracy party has exactly the same agenda as Geert—it’s doing very well and Geert will perceive them as his biggest threat.
Geert’s momentum may have slowed down, but those voters are still out there, just more dispersed than they were. I’m pretty sure he will try to draw those voters back and that might mean a rethink in how he expresses himself. Up till now he has behaved in a very, very extreme way. Whether or not to tone down the rhetoric is going to be a difficult decision for him. On one hand, he still won the four seats [in addition to the seats his party already had] by being extreme. On the other, the three or four seats he lost to the newer, smaller parties, he’s losing because those smaller parties have the same message but deliver it in a more toned-down way. He’ll have to formulate a strategy that will work to both keep the extremists and attract more moderate voters.
Marsh: What can we expect to hear him focusing on over the coming years?
Wilders: Over the next four years, he’ll want to grow his party to become an even larger voice of opposition, to be a backseat fomenter of discord. Politically, he will have to keep his focus on Islam and immigration, and use that to reinforce his case for leaving the European Union and to hammer away at every issue that comes up—healthcare, care of the elderly, pensions, schooling.
Marsh: To many people, Geert is a mystery. He’s the youngest of four. What are your memories of him growing up?
Wilders: I knew him from birth, from day one. I even changed his diapers. As is often the case with the youngest, he was quite spoiled. But apart from that, he was just an ordinary kid, having fun with friends, playing football, nothing strange there. From his 13th birthday. … Well, I wasn’t the easiest of teenagers, but he took it up to a different level. He was really hard to handle. Rebellious.
Marsh: Rebellious in what way?
Wilders: I think it was all related to puberty. He was a very, very difficult rebel, causing havoc all the time. For my parents, he was quite a handful. He did everything he liked. It didn’t matter whether or not someone tried to hold him down. He just went his own way. And his way was quite extreme. I don’t know if he was ever in trouble with the police but I wouldn’t rule it out. He was having the time of his life.
Marsh: How did he come across?
Wilders: I’d only see him occasionally. He was at home to eat and sleep and that’s it. He regarded home as a sort of hotel. School didn’t matter to him. He was far more intelligent than it showed at the time. Most of us believed he was going through a phase and it would end in his 20s. As a teenager he had long hair. He played in a band for a short while. It was a lot of noise. … Imagine the Sex Pistols in Dutch. He had a lot of girlfriends, several in Israel and in Egypt—wherever he traveled.
Marsh: And the rebellious phase came to an end?
Wilders: Yes, he grew up when he went to Israel. He was 18, I drove him to the airport in Amsterdam. He’d wanted to go to Australia but settled on going to a kibbutz on the border with Jordan, by the Allenby Bridge, instead. He stayed there for two years. He had a hard time over there and that made a difference. In Israel he spent all his money in about a week. He lived like a king and [then] was forced to work. It was dangerous. And you could tell, after that. He came back a far more serious person, far more likable. He started looking for jobs and studying. I think the seed was planted there—the emotional and intellectual seed.
Marsh: You mean the seed of his extremist politics?
Wilders: Yes. He wasn’t yet anti-Islam, it wasn’t that much anti-Islam, but it was first and foremost pro-Israel.
After he came back from Israel, he went to work for social services. But it was havoc over there with bureaucracy. He decided, “I want to make a difference and I can’t do it over here, so I want to join the center of power.” And that meant politics.
He and I both lived in Utrecht at the time so we met quite often, discussed all kinds of parties, all kinds of scenarios he had at the time. He ended up with the liberals (VVD) and they were desperately looking for someone who knew something about social security and he fit into that picture. So he was in. Ghostwriting for Fritz Bolkestein, the leader of the party of the time.
Once he moved up from being a ghostwriter to someone who actually had a seat in parliament, he became a serious opponent of Turkey. Then the head of his party left, and the new head moved the party to the middle, leaving my brother on the far-right side of the party. So he was kind of isolated. He didn’t feel comfortable with that. [In 2004, he left to form his own party.] Anti-Islam started becoming his cause after Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, was murdered by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim, and Pim Fortuyn was assassinated, and 9/11 happened. This combination provided a gap over here in the Netherlands, politically, and he noticed that. So from that moment on, anti-Islam became his core issue.
Marsh: Is personal Islamophobia what drives him?
Wilders: There is a difference between his private and public self. In private, Muslims didn’t bother him that much. But from a political point of view, it was a real opportunity—it was gold dust.
The problem with his outspoken political views is that he then needed 24/7 police protection. And that narrowed down his world very much. His life became very isolated and resulted in this polarization. And if you combine that with the fact that no one within his party or any of his advisers dares to speak up to him, it’s not a healthy way to live. It’s a rather dangerous combination. He lives in a cocoon—he can’t do his own shopping, can’t go to the cinema, no social life—I don’t think he has any idea how much a pint of milk or a loaf of bread costs. I pity him for it because I really wish he would be able to live a sort of normal life.
He does meet Muslims in Parliament, of course, but apart from that, if anyone who even looks like they might be a Muslim were to approach him, his security crew will act immediately. He’s sealed off. I’m not a shrink so it’s hard for me to judge, but he may have become slightly paranoid.
Marsh: Is your brother crazy?
Wilders: No, he’s not crazy at all. Look at the way he manages to handle his followers and the press, using Twitter as his main form of communication. He’s not crazy in that respect, anyway.
Marsh: Is he dangerous?
Wilders: Not politically, but certainly socially. He’s dangerous because he does manage to blame others and that can cause social havoc. He’s already radically changed the social atmosphere. There was a debate going on with regard to Turkish ministers coming to the Netherlands. He reacted by putting gasoline on the fire: “Kick them all out.” Turkish people feel estranged and afraid and are looking over their shoulders. There were riots. I’m not saying my brother is the only reason there were riots, but he surely helped. And that’s merely one example.
When he slips out of any kind of government and blames others, millions of people will believe him blindly and I’m afraid of the social consequences. He’s warned for years on Twitter that if his party is excluded from governing, “I predict a revolt.” A week later he followed up, stating, “But of course, a peaceful revolt.” But there’s a week in between.
Marsh: Does he enjoy violence?
Wilders: No. He sincerely does believe Islam as a whole is the enemy and social unrest is the price to pay. … Violence is a price to be paid.
Marsh: Is he a rabble rouser or does he want to rule?
Wilders: I’m convinced he doesn’t want to govern. There’s nothing to win, and there’s everything to lose. He knows that he can’t live up to his promises. … His promises are so extreme and the system means he would never get a majority to pass them—he would have to make compromises. He wants to be eternally in opposition.
Marsh: Why the hair?
Wilders: The peroxide hair started as a joke in his early 20s and he ended up liking it. He had a bet to go blonde and have it bleached at the hairdresser. And since he joined politics it became a trademark.
Marsh: When did you last speak?
Wilders: We last had face-to-face contact at my mother’s birthday last year. We stopped communicating altogether when I went public about this famous picture of Merkel with blood on her hands, in December. That for me was crossing a line.
Marsh: Did you and your brother ever talk politics?
Wilders: Not after he started his own party. It’s wise not to talk about politics with him, because of that cocoon he lives in where he has no opposition at all. He can be very charming, very witty, great sense of humor. As long as you don’t talk about politics, no problem at all. You can’t even mention the word “politics”—he’ll cast you out. You’re either with him or against him. He can’t take criticism. I’ve learned to make a distinction between my brother, who I love very, very dearly, and the ideas he stands for.
Marsh: Would you characterize him as a fanatic? He’s compared the Quran with Mein Kampf and wants to rid the Netherlands of all Muslims.
Wilders: He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a politician in our parliament, so for sure he knows the tricks. People forget how long he’s been around. He talks about “the elite” and the “fake parliament,” but he’s been there for two decades.
Marsh: What does his hometown, Venlow, think of Geert?
Wilders: At first he was a hero. The region does feel rather small and neglected so when one of them becomes famous, people are proud. And in the beginning, in Venlow, he got 60 percent of the vote. The latest polls show that it’s dropped by half. In the rest of the country, 80 percent of people don’t like him. The other 20 percent think he’s a savior and he’s going to save the world.
Marsh: Is it hard for your parents to have a son who is so famous and so divisive?
Wilders: Of course it is. Our father passed away over a decade ago, leaving my mother, and she’s a rather old woman now. She’s far from happy with all the attention. She’s worried about me—I get my share of threats as well—and about my brother, whether or not he will be assassinated.
Family friends have been divided because of my brother. It does reflect on her. Many of her friends and acquaintances pulled back merely because of the views of her son.
Marsh: How has speaking out against your brother threatened your personal security?
Wilders: In the evenings, when it’s dark, groups—followers of my brother’s—they’d say: “There’s a bullet waiting for you. Just wait until after the elections and your brother has won. We’ll come to finish you off.” And that’s apart from name-calling and spitting and so forth.
I refuse to get personal security, because I don’t want a life that even comes close to the life my brother lives. I’ll take my chances.
Marsh: Who are his heroes?
Wilders: He’s pulled the Trump card. Whether he does regard Trump as a real idol, I don’t know. I do believe that it’s at least common ground. Horrible pest, egocentric, and aggressive. That sums it up.
Marsh: Is he a white supremacist?
Wilders: It’s about power, for sure, but it’s anti-Islam, anti-Europe.
Marsh: How do you feel about the rise of the right?
Wilders: I feel it will take at least a decade for it to subside, if it subsides. My brother has radically changed the political landscape and that won’t fade away that easily. I’m scared of people overall looking for shelter in putting up walls, becoming enemies again. And that is what is happening. I understand the reason for that. We are social animals. We do need a group to belong to [in order] to feel safe. So many of the old certainties have faded away and the European Union made it possible to travel freely. So, people got kind of lost—“Who am I? Where do I belong to?”—and they are desperately looking for their place in the world, for an identity.
Marsh: What’s the secret to his populism?
Wilders: It’s merely promising easy solutions for difficult problems.