How US Neocons Inspired the Netherlands’ New Radical Right

Commentators have long drawn sharp distinctions between conservatives in English-speaking countries and Europe's own far-right traditions. Yet in the famously liberal Netherlands, such divides are becoming increasingly blurry, as reactionaries seeking a cultural counterrevolution try to imitate US neocons.

Thierry Baudet, founder and leader of the Dutch right-wing party Forum for Democracy. (Roel Wijnants / Flickr)

To many, it felt as if new alliances were being formed. This February, a National Conservatism conference was held in Rome’s glitzy Grand Hotel Plaza, in a bid to build bridges between Anglo-American conservatives and European radical right-wing populists.

On one side, the conference featured influential American and British conservatives, such as Chris DeMuth, longtime head of the American Enterprise Institute, the British neoconservative Douglas Murray, and the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski. On the other end, the gathering hosted well-known leaders of the European radical right, like Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, France’s Marion Maréchal (who is also granddaughter of Jean-Marie le Pen) and Thierry Baudet, the new kid on the block of the Dutch radical right.

Right-wing politics on the two continents were long seen through separate lenses: the European radical right was understood as a peculiar product of the continent’s dark legacy with fascism and racism, whereas, similar political stances in the United States and the UK were explained away as the quirky aberrations of Anglo-American conservatism. But such neat distinctions have quickly collapsed in recent years, in no small part due to Brexit and Donald Trump.

As the National Conservatism conferences show, it has become increasingly unclear where conservatism ends and the populist radical right begins. The mingling and exchange between these two traditions, however, has been much longer in the making. The European radical right has always been powerfully influenced by the example of Anglo-American conservatism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Netherlands, where ideas from the US conservative movement in particular have had a defining influence on the rise of the Dutch radical right.

The Assault on the 1960s

At first sight, it might seem odd that politicians in the Netherlands would take up ideas from the US conservative movement. After all, the Netherlands is known internationally for its liberal policies on everything from gay marriage, to prostitution, drugs, euthanasia, and abortion. But it was exactly the dominance of progressive values in the Netherlands that made right-wing politicians, journalists, and intellectuals turn eagerly to Anglo-American conservatism for inspiration.

In the early 1990s, discontent was rife on the Dutch right. While Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had unleashed a powerful conservative backlash against the progressive movements in their countries, the Netherlands had not seen any similar conservative “correction.”

The center-right coalitions of Christian Democrats (CDA) and right-wing liberals (VVD) that ruled the Netherlands in the 1980s had embarked on a series of strict austerity policies. But in the eyes of their right-wing detractors, their course had been far too moderate and consensual. They feared that the opportunity to make a forceful break with the progressive legacy of the 1960s had been wasted. In short, they felt they had missed the boat.

To understand why this was the case, they turned to conservative authors from overseas. American neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell had come up with the theory of the “new class,” to explain the challenge posed by the progressive movements of the 1960s and 70s. The concept referred to a new leftist elite comprised of erstwhile students who had climbed the ladder to become society’s intellectuals, academics, bureaucrats, social workers, managers, lawyers, and so on.

While not in power politically or economically, this “new class” exercised a dominant influence through its command over the institutions that shaped American public opinion. Leftist politics, the neoconservatives argued, was a rationalization of the interests of this class. They consolidated their power by expanding the (welfare) institutions they dominated, while challenging the traditional family values that kept society together.

One of the principal figures on the Dutch right was Frits Bolkestein, a former oilman at the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell. He became the leader of the right-wing liberal party VVD in 1990. In that same year, he published his first book, The Angel and the Beast, a sustained attack on progressive intellectuals and the legacy of 1968.

Frits Bolkestein. (Marcel Oosterwijk / Flickr)

Bolkestein was an avid reader of neoconservative journals such as Commentary and Encounter, and was very much inspired by the work of Daniel Bell. Bolkestein popularized a very similar analysis: the Dutch protest movement of the 1960s and 70s had been so influential due to its sway over public opinion, influencing an “entire generation of policymakers.” The result was an overly generous welfare state and an anti-authoritarian public ethos. But Bolkestein also blamed Dutch elites, who lacked the courage to confront the protest movements and “had surrendered without firing a shot.”

He was soon joined by H. J. Schoo, editor-in-chief of the largest Dutch opinion magazine, Elsevier Weekly, a bastion of the Right. Schoo had studied in Chicago in the 1960s and since then had developed what he called a “kinship” with neoconservatives such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and Gertrude Himmelfarb.

In his influential books and columns, Schoo argued that the progressive counterculture of the 1960s was still casting its shadow over Dutch politics in the 1990s. It was the result of the unbroken power of the “new class” in the institutions that shaped Dutch public opinion, and the stifling nature of their imposed political correctness.

This theory would become wildly popular with Dutch right-wing populists, with the notion of a “leftist elite” portrayed as a dominant force in Dutch society. This, despite the reality that the Dutch left had been excluded from political power in the 1980s and languished in electoral retreat ever since. (In fact, in the same years that Bolkestein and Schoo popularized the theory of the new class, leftist intellectuals were busy debating the terminal decline of the Dutch left.) This caveat aside, the belief that the ideas of a progressive minority had moved the country to the left had, as its corollary, the conviction that another, conservative minority could perform the opposite feat.

Geert Wilders with his wife Krisztina Marfai, 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

This premise formed the impetus for a conservative offensive in the 1990s and 2000s. It would lay the basis for the emergence of the populist radical right, in a very direct sense. After all, the right-wing populist Geert Wilders (whose Freedom Party is presently the second largest party in the Dutch polls) was the former assistant of Bolkestein and claimed to have derived his politics from his former master. At Elsevier, Schoo moreover tutored Pim Fortuyn, the first right-wing populist politician in the Netherlands, who founded his own party in 2002.

The Clash of Civilizations

Just as important an influence in that period was the “clash of civilizations” thesis, developed by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. After the end of the Cold War, the neoconservative movement experienced a phase of crisis and transformation. At one end of the debate, there was Francis Fukuyama, who famously posited the end of history. At the other, there was his former PhD supervisor Samuel Huntington, who identified Islamic civilization (and China) as a new source of hostility, allowing history to proceed along its course.

In the Netherlands, a country rather obsessed with American politics, these debates were followed closely. When Fukuyama visited the Netherlands in 1992 and 1995, he was debated by Bolkestein, who strongly rejected his premise. Bolkestein took Lewis and Huntington’s side, identifying Islam as an “ideological rival” to the West. “The fact remains that the world contains a billion Muslims,” Bolkestein replied to Fukuyama, “of which many consider their ideology superior to the ‘godless, materialist, and egoistic liberalism of the West.’”

Bolkestein expanded on this theme in a series of controversial lectures, kick-starting the immigration debate that would come to dominate Dutch politics in the coming decades. In his view, the core values of Western civilization were under threat.

After a long history that includes many black pages, rationalism, humanism and Christianity have brought forth a number of fundamentally important political principles, like the separation of Church and State, freedom of speech, tolerance and non-discrimination. Liberalism claims universal validity and significance for these principles. That is its political vision. This means that according to liberalism, a civilization that affirms these values, is superior to a civilization that does not.

Bolkestein proceeded to depict “the Islamic world” as both inferior and “antithetical” to European values. The presence of a large number of Muslim immigrants formed a threat to these values and he called for their uncompromising defense. This threat was compounded by the specter of “cultural relativism,” a common tendency of Dutch progressive intellectuals to deny the superiority of their own culture.

Bolkestein thus popularized a Dutch version of the clash of civilizations theory. The major distinction with the American debate is that there, neoconservatives were primarily concerned with foreign policy and military confrontation. In the Netherlands, the integration of Muslim immigrants was instead seen as a domestic question, and politicians insisted on an ideological confrontation with Islam, to convince Muslim immigrants to assimilate and accept the universality of Western values.

The central contradiction in this discourse is the idea of universal values, which are at the same time presented as contained in a specific cultural tradition. Access to these universal values can only be had through acculturation — through the acceptance of (superior) Western civilization. Universal values are thus enlisted in the service of a particularistic discourse of Western superiority and civilizational confrontation.

This paradoxical combination was also a prominent theme of US neoconservatism and undergirded American military intervention abroad, depicted as a way to spread the universal values that the American tradition embodied.  Meanwhile, the American anti-war movement and the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s were derided as cultural and moral relativists.

In the Netherlands, that same formula has been used as a tool to plead for tougher immigration and integration policies, and to reinvent Dutch national identity in opposition to both progressive “cultural relativists” and a “backward” Islam.

A New Nationalism

The idea of a civilizational clash with Islam was to become the defining issue of right-wing populist leader Pim Fortuyn. To American journalists, he introduced himself as “the Samuel Huntington of Dutch politics.” In his 1997 book Against the Islamization of Our Culture, Fortuyn stated that “the loss of the enemy, state socialism, leaves us behind like an emperor without clothes.”

Statue of Pim Fortuyn in The Hague, Netherlends. (Roel Wijnants / Flickr)

After the Cold War, citizens in the West were condemned to a life without meaning, left to indulge in banal consumerism. In the book, Fortuyn identified Islam as a new enemy, providing the West with renewed identity and purpose.

In a column published the week before 9/11, Fortuyn declared a “cold war against Islam”: “a war with arguments and words, not a hot, armed conflict — an ideological battle with Islam, with the goal of convincing its adherents that they are better off when they loyally and royally embrace the core norms and values of modernity.”

After 9/11, Fortuyn’s electoral fortunes took off — and he successfully campaigned on a platform to forcibly assimilate Muslim immigrants. Shortly before the 2002 elections, he was dramatically assassinated by an animal rights activist. For the Netherlands, a country where political violence is a rarity, this was a deep national trauma.

In the subsequent elections, Fortuyn’s now-leaderless party shook the Dutch political system: with 17 percent of the vote, it became the second largest party. And it achieved this out of the blue, in what is commonly called “the Fortuyn revolt.”

Many Dutch and international observers saw Fortuyn’s emergence as part of the broader far-right, nationalist, and anti-immigrant wave, sweeping the European continent. In the Dutch press, Fortuyn’s rise was compared with that of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, Filip de Winters’s Flemish Bloc, Jörg Haider’s FPÖ, and even Benito Mussolini.

Key to Fortuyn’s success, however, was the way he distinguished himself from traditional far-right positions. What observers had missed, was the reinvention of right-wing politics in the 1990s. Following in the footsteps of Bolkestein and Schoo, Fortuyn was drawing on the Anglo-American (neo)conservative tradition, rather than on the European far-right.

As H. J. Schoo observed approvingly, the agenda of Fortuyn “could well be compared with American neoconservatism.” Both in the United States and in the Netherlands, Schoo saw a modern conservatism that resisted the ideals of the 1960s, that emphasized people’s ability to pursue their own path without interference from the welfare state — a conservatism bearing the broader aim of introducing a new moral consciousness in society.

In a retrospective essay from 2003 titled “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” Kristol defined the “historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism” as the conversion of “the Republican party, and American conser­vatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”

This conservatism was in “the American grain”: “hopeful not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic.” This also made for the major attraction of neoconservative ideas for the Dutch right.

Jos de Beus, a conservative social democratic intellectual, criticized Dutch conservatives for not being American enough. Their traditional conservatism — with its “gloomy vision of man, its tragic philosophy of history, its skeptical approach to politics and human reason, its fear of the tyrannical state, its preference for a hierarchical society, held together as an organic community by religion, authority and discipline” — could never succeed in the Netherlands.

The “optimism, commercialism and even democratic participation” of American conservatism were needed. De Beus insisted that Dutch conservatism “could only gain ground in the Netherlands by discarding certain elements of European conservatism, and incorporating certain elements of American neoconservatism.”

In this way, neoconservative ideas helped modernize the European radical right. This expressed itself in a range of altered positions: a shift from a focus on race and ethnicity to culture and civilization; a shift from the classical antisemitism of the European far right to passionate support for Israel as a Western front in the struggle against Islam; and finally in the tactical embrace by the Right of gay rights and women’s emancipation as proof of Western civilizational superiority.

The new (civic) nationalism based on civilizational identity, had a far broader political appeal than the traditional ethnic nationalism of the far right. It allowed the Right to pursue an anti-immigration politics without conjuring the image of right-wing extremism and racism. In theory, of course, culture and civilizational identity as markers of distinction are more fluid than ethnic identity.

As second- and third-generation Dutch Muslims were to find out, however, culture could be as resilient a marker of exclusion as ethnic identity. The task of assimilating to Western values would become a permanent test, leaving immigrants with a secondary status as eternal citizens-in-waiting.

The right-wing populist Geert Wilders would eventually claim Fortuyn’s mantle. Even more than Fortuyn, Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV) was heavily influenced by the US conservative movement. Wilders’s speechwriter and ideologue was Bart Jan Spruyt, a self-declared neoconservative who defended his participation in the Freedom Party with references to neoconservative authors such as Leo Strauss and Samuel Huntington.

In the process of establishing his Freedom Party, Wilders made a weeklong pilgrimage to a series of neoconservative think tanks in the United States. American neoconservative networks, in particular the Middle East Forum, Jihad Watch, and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, would provide Wilders with a crucial form of ideological and financial support.

At the same time, Wilders was a staunch ally of Israel, and maintained close ties with the Israeli right. Wilders exemplified the new global alliances forming on the Right in the years after 9/11, between Anglo-American conservatives, right-wing Zionists, and the European radical right. The idea of “national conservatism” is only the latest installment of a transatlantic dialogue that has been decades in the making.

In “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” Irving Kristol proudly remarked that there “is nothing like neo­conservatism in Europe,” and that “Europeans think it absurd to look to the United States for lessons in political innovation.” On these last two points, Kristol was clearly mistaken.

In recent years, after the election of Trump, this transatlantic dialogue has taken on a more radical and extremist form, with the alt-right drawing on continental European far-right and proto-fascist traditions and — vice versa — the European radical right continues to look toward the United States for lessons in political innovation.

We see this in the fact that Wilders’s new competitor Thierry Baudet is a more Trumpian figure. Hence the paradoxical fallout of these last few decades: the rise of a new nationalist internationalism.