The Netherlands is the very model of a modern European country – prosperous, peaceable and orderly. The Dutch pride themselves for their tolerant outlook and progressive values. Except for their wooden shoes and funny doors, they're a lot like Canadians.
So why has a crazy populist seized centre stage in Wednesday's election?
The peroxide-headed Geert Wilders makes Kellie Leitch look like Shirley Temple. Never mind a values test. He wants to ban the Koran, shut down mosques, bar asylum-seekers, and have "no immigrants any more from Islamic countries." Even if he wins, Mr. Wilders can't form a government because no other parties will support him. But a victory in the popular vote would be a huge boost for the likes of Marine Le Pen in France.
In the United States and most of Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment is combined with a host of other grievances. This is not so true in the Netherlands. The economy is strong. People are not that fussed about the European Union. Inequality is not an issue (after all, the Netherlands is about the most equal place on Earth). The big issue in this election is national identity – that elusive thing known as Dutchness. Dutchness is about the way people are expected to behave. It embraces anything from respecting women to not spitting on the street. And people fear they are losing it.
"The influx has been too much. The borders should close," one prosperous businesswoman told The Washington Post. "If this continues, our culture will cease to exist."
The Dutch have a long history of welcoming newcomers. Immigrants from many places, including Indonesia, have integrated well. When asked what traits immigrants should possess, the Dutch rank skin colour and Christianity at the very bottom of the list. They don't even care much about education or work skills. What they care about the most are speaking the official language and adopting Dutch customs.
In other words, the Dutch have not suddenly turned into a country of racists and xenophobes. The problem is that a significant number of immigrants have failed to integrate successfully into Dutch life. Turks and Moroccans have significantly higher unemployment and welfare rates than the general population, and young Moroccan men are disproportionately involved in crime. This is the frustration that Mr. Wilders has tapped into.
And now, in an awful accident of timing, Turkish politics has suddenly intruded into Dutch life – complete with crowds chanting "Allahu Akbar" in Rotterdam's main square. The Netherlands has a large population of Turks, and many of them have dual citizenship. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been vigorously campaigning for their votes in an upcoming referendum whose purpose is to increase his powers. The Dutch government, quite naturally, has objected to all this politicking by a foreign leader, and on the weekend barred two Turkish government ministers from entering the country. Mr. Erdogan has retaliated by comparing the government to Nazis. The furor is bound to help the immigration hardliners, who can blame the government for creating a huge integration failure.
Populists like Mr. Wilders are doing well for the same reason Donald Trump did well – they've tapped into legitimate grievances that the governing elites didn't understand or have failed to address. The only way to save their skin is to persuade the voters that they get it.
Mark Rutte, the current Dutch Prime Minister, is attempting to do exactly that. In a full-page letter published in late January, he declared that the Dutch are "increasingly uncomfortable" with immigrants who "harass gays, or whistle at women in short skirts, or brand ordinary Dutch people racists." Immigrants who "refuse to adapt" should "behave normally, or go away."
Let's hope Mr. Rutte wins this one. As he warned on Monday, "the wrong kind of populism" is threatening the European order. And he's right. If the moderates can't persuade the voters they can address their legitimate concerns – as the Democrats so miserably failed to do in the United States – the future will be a lot more dangerous, both for them and for the rest of us.