Thierry Baudet as an anti-Enlightenment Populist: on the need of a new elite for the people

13 minutes to read
Article
Julia van der Staak
20/03/2019

Thierry Baudet has revived the discussion on multicultural issues in Dutch society. To some he represents the true voice of the people, others wonder what kind of charade he is putting up and how long it will last.

Baudet and the populist wave

Populism in today’s society is very much linked to right wing politicians such as Le Pen, Farage, and Trump in people's minds. However, populism can cover many different phenomena. As much as it can be considered to be a far right phenomenon, it can be centre to far left as well (Maly, 2017). Being a populist or not, then, is not really the question. What matters is if the politician is using the populist frame or not. This is in fact projected upon someone in various ways, through the media, by the person themselves, and it needs to be reciprocated by an audience. To be perceived as a populist is often a carefully planned strategy and is something that is being consciously worked towards (Lempert & Silverstein, 2016, p.2).

Neither is the message that a politician wants to get across just a simple form of communication; it is as much about what politicians say about certain issues, as it is about how and when they say it (Blommaert 2005, as cited by Maly 2016). The message is visible as a collage-in-motion of communicative events, which can be up for re-evaluation from time to time. It is as fluid as the frame in which a politician is depicted. Something as simple as giving a wrong answer, a hesitation or a particular pronunciation of a word can give another dimension to the message and change what we think is set in stone (Ibid. p. 5, 23).

The message is visible as a collage-in-motion of communicative events

The populism of today is Vox-populism. From the 1990s onward, the media became the perfect way to provide the public with long political messages in the format of a snapshot; they created the ‘infotainment’ format. Through this new way in which politics was addressed, politicians’ relationship with the people changed. Politicians and citizens can interact through sharing, liking or retweeting messages on social media, and the people could also make themselves heard this way. Being a politician in today’s society is linked to celebrity more than it ever was before. (Blommaert, 2017). As Maly explains, vox-populism is a frame that distinguishes ‘the people’ from the elite. Its open construct of ‘the people’ enables many individuals to imagine themselves as being a part of the whole, and they support the candidate, who seemingly voices their concerns (2016, p. 11).

Populism can thus be filled with different ideologies. In the remainder of this article, I will analyze in what ideological tradition Baudet is speaking.

A Historic Reconstruction of the Voice of the People

In order to understand the rise of Baudet, it is important to discuss two other significant right wing politicians he is often compared to in the media and who partially have similar standpoints, namely, Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders. Both are striking figures with parties that have evenly striking ideas. Simultaneously, by explaining who they are, it becomes evident that multicultural issues are not a new phenomenon in Dutch society. The fact that comparisons are being made between Baudet and the two politicians already says something in itself about Baudet’s message, e.g. that he has things in common with other prominent populists. This already adds to his own message.
 
Pim Fortuyn (1948-2002) was the founder of a homegrown, Dutch brand of 'anti-immigration' populism. His party ‘Lijst Pim Fortuyn’, was known for its views and outspokenness on the threats of the Islamization of Dutch culture. Fortuyn was highly educated and spoke with an intelligent and academic register. His message was that of a highly educated, intelligent man who was not simply accusing the Islamic influences on the Dutch society of being bad; he had arguments based on what he as an intellectual had learned and witnessed. On the 6th of May in 2002, after he had just finished an interview, Fortuyn had to pay the price for being outspoken on these standpoints as he was murdered on a parking lot outside the radio studio only nine days before the elections. His death caused a hesitance within the left wing political field to further criticize the right, as harsh critiques had contributed to his death. This caused a new political climate which ‘normalized’ Fortuyn’s ideology.

This climate was beneficial for Wilders, frontman of the 'Partij voor de Vrijheid', who built further on the legacy of Pim Fortuyn. However, he lacks the latter's intellectual voice. Wilders is notorious for the way in which he presents his standpoints on the de-Islamization of the Netherlands (PVV, n.d.). He uses agitation in society about immigration and integration matters to his advantage as this suits his anti-Islamic views and anti-EU vision. He can respond to these existing concerns and portray himself as a populist, as they line up exactly with his standpoints and views. As Fabers (2017) addresses, many of Wilders’ voters don’t agree with everything he stands for, but they share his contempt for regular politicians, who they believe are incapable of acknowledging, let alone solving, the country’s problems, because they have stopped caring about the interests of the great majority of the Dutch population.

The Voice of Baudet

Thierry Baudet, front man of the newly founded ‘Forum voor Democratie’, his party and its views have all been discussed elaborately in the media and Dutch society as of late. As mentioned before, all of this; the way he portrays himself, how the media portray him and how society decides to react to this is part of Baudet’s message. As Lempert and Silverstein argue, today’s form of Message is best described as “branding” – as well as political marketing (Lempert & Silverstein, p. 33, 48).

Branding and marketing is something Baudet does well. To many people, Baudet was 'there' all of a sudden and by now, most of us know who he is and what his party stands for. His position can, to some extent, be compared to the maverick position which Maly (2016) ascribes to Trump. He considers Trump to be a maverick in the political field as he first and foremost is a businessman, and therefore he is the only one who can change the twisted establishment (p. 9). Baudet comes rather out of the blue a few months before the General Elections with the one-liner that he will ‘replace and beat the elite’. As a result, the Forum for Democracy was able to win two seats in the House of Representatives.

The Forum for Democracy has quite similar standpoints as one of their largest competitors – Wilders’ Party for Freedom. Both parties are anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-establishment and pro-referenda. The difference lies in the anti-establishment standpoint. Whereas the PVV is against the left wing elite that cherishes the multicultural society, the FvD is against all of the current elite; the entire establishment is faulty and must be replaced (van der Galien, 2017). Moreover, it has to be replaced by Baudet himself. Discontent about how the Ukraine treaty was neglected, Baudet decided to actually join politics and change it from within, stating that: ‘I knew from the beginning that I was the only one who could do it. At the moment I don’t see any other talent in the Netherlands’ (van Outeren & Wijnen, 2017). 

"I knew from the beginning that I was the only one who could do it"

He does not feel as if he particularly wants to become prime minister, but rather that he has to, saying: ‘I don’t feel as if it is a personal ambition, but as a duty, as a mission. And I think many people have similar feelings about it. And that is what you also see, they join us.’ After which the reporter jokingly compares him to Jesus, to which he responds by laughing and replying that ‘we shouldn’t exaggerate’ (“Baudet niet te stoppen”, 2017). He occasionally utters similar, rather arrogant, statements, like: ‘It would be best if we were absolute rulers. Within the parliamentarianism you cannot make policy changes’ (“Baudet het allerbeste”, 2017).

An Anti-Enlightenment Ideology

A statement that clearly tells us something about Baudet’s ideology is the following: ‘We should be less universalistic. We should let go of the ideas that all people are completely the same.’ (“Baudet, het allerbeste”, 2017). This is the anti-enlightenment notion of there being no such thing as universalism; that inequality is normal. Opinions like these support Baudet's frame. This is further enhanced by his being against the current elite, the establishment and going back to how things were before – the European Renaissance he speaks of, in which we need to bring back the best traditions of the West.

Lievisse and Wijnen (2017) further mention that the very conservative and extreme right ideas Baudet holds on for example women and ethnic minorities are worrisome. When Baudet is confronted with questions about these statements, he hides by saying that it is misunderstood irony or that people simply take it the wrong way. This causes some damage to his message, as politicians should be clear on what they stand for. After all, the people should be  aware of what they can expect once they vote for him. Women who have already voted for Baudet might be very displeased with uncharitable statements on their behalf.

Baudet's irony is simply misunderstood

The matter that remains is how Baudet goes about his message; the way he brings it to the world. Here, we can see that Baudet has a different approach than Wilders. Where Wilders’ register is targeted at the general Dutch audience, Baudet’s register aims to speak to the higher educated part of society. His one-liner is that he wants to ‘replace and beat the elite’, which means that he puts his trust in the common sense of the ‘average Dutchmen’, as he wants to install more and binding referenda (FvD, 2017). Furthermore, he builds his persona and that of the party as being intellectual by thoroughly describing his own educational background and that of other FvD candidates on the party'swebsite (FvD, 2017). Baudet himself having obtained degrees in both History and Law, followed by a doctorate in the Philosophy of Law, clearly belongs to the highly educated part of society. Similar to Fortuyn, he also dresses and talks sophisticatedly, which further enhances his message. 

Having both the identity of an intellectual and a man of the people is a great advantage when you are able to use it to reach out to different target audiences (Maly, 2016 p.282). However, this is a difficult task for Baudet, as he is clearly part of the elite himself and the way in which he wants to reach the general audience is by destroying the establishment – which he is currently a part of. Pleasing both target audiences therefore remains a difficult task. It requires a politician with a solid message, one who knows what he is talking about and, most importantly, what he stands for.  

The Power will be Transferred Back to the People

When looking at Baudet's ideology and his statements, his message becomes clear: those who are in power at the moment are not doing anything right and they never will. They should sooner rather than later be replaced and if one votes for the Forum for Democracy this will happen. The power will be transferred to a new elite that will rule in the name of the people. By installing more binding referenda, the people will be heard. An example of how Baudet shares his message with his followers is through social media posts, as we can see in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1. Baudet: “Populism” is pleating for a European renaissance

Figure 2. Baudet making fun of Rutte, combined with the slogan: “Take back your voice”.

 
His standpoint on referenda is the main argument that establishes the anti-enlightenment populist frame for Baudet. By being in favour of referenda and wanting to see more of them in political decision making, he portrays himself as truly standing for what the people want. He's even gone so far as claiming that once the binding referenda are through, the people will no longer have a need for the party. Even though this may sound unlikely, it does come across as if it really is his main goal to give the people their voice back (van Outeren & Wijnen, 2017).

The media replicate the image of Baudet as a populist, often by naming him in line with Fortuyn and Wilders. Similarly, his party is heavily criticized. Some argue that he might seem to be a more decent option, compared to Wilders, and that he attracts many highly-educated right wing voters. Yet, articles often conclude that there might be shockingly little that distinguishes the Forum for Democracy from Wilders' Party for Freedom. Moreover, all of his stances have downsides attached to them (Akkerman, 2017) (Lievisse & Wijnen, 2017). Most articles written about Baudet use one of his own statements for their headlines, see figure 3, after which Baudet is critically analyzed. The media always use this format, which leads to the assumption that mainstream media are afraid of how society will react, once they write about him as a populist. However, the people make use of Baudet’s remarks often by tweeting or creating memes, such as figure 4 and 5, in which they show support on his views. In this way the people replicate the anti-enlightenment populist frame.

Figure 3: One of Baudet's Statements as Title for the Article

Figure 4. Baudet putting Wilders in place

Figure 5: Baudet and Hiddema Hide Behind a Shield Against all the Negativity Thrown at Them

Populist out of Sentiment

Important to keep in mind is what Chorus wrote about Fortuyn in relation to Baudet and Wilders. During the elections this year when there was talk of populism, people lit up when hearing Fortuyn’s name (Chorus, 2017). Perhaps the Netherlands is waiting for a 'new Fortuyn’ to deal with the current multicultural, immigration and de-Islamization issues in our society. This is why both Baudet and Wilders are framed as the ones who might help Dutch society with underlying societal frustrations and  multicultural problems. However, they both lack in charisma and wisdom, while communicating their views, compared to Fortuyn.

We can conclude that Baudet’s message is that of an anti-enlightenment populist and this is replicated by the media and the public. He believes himself to be the chosen one to guide the path for the Netherlands into the new European renaissance, like he said himself: ‘I often think: I am the last of the Mohicans. We live at the end time (..)’ (“Baudet, het allerbeste”, 2017).

What remains to be seen is which of his statements are said with irony, and which ones he actually stands by. Additionally, he simply has to get his message straight if he wants to preserve the loyalty of his voters. If Baudet can learn from Fortuyn and Wilders' mistakes, there might be little that will hold him back during elections to come.

 

 

References

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“Baudet niet te stoppen” Editorial Office. 28.11.2017. PowNed. 

Blommaert, J. “Populisme in 2017: nieuw? Of wat?”(18.03.2017) DiggitMagazine. 

Faber, S. (21.02.2017) "Why the Dutch are drawn to Right-Wing populist Geert Wilders" . TheNation.

ForumvoorDemocratie. Author unknown (n.d.).

van der Galien, M. (15. 01.2017) ‘Thierry Baudet verklaart de elite de oorlog: “we worden aangevallen door degene die ons zouden moeten beschermen”.’ De Dagelijkse Standaard.

Jutta Chorus, J. : “De Waarheid over Pim Fortuyn” (12.04.17) NRC. 

Lempert, M. and Silverstein, M. (2012). “Creatures of Politics.” Indiana University Press, pp.1-57.

Lievisse Adriaanse, M. & de Witt Wijnen, P. “De Fouten van Wilders waar Baudet van Profiteert”. NRC. 

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Maly, I. (2016). “Scientific’ nationalism. Nations and Nationalism” 22(2), pp.266-286.

Maly, I. (2016). “Why Trump Won.” [online] Academia.edu.

van Outeren, E. & de Witt Wijnen, P. ”Premier worden interesseert me totaal niet, maar het moet”. (24.11.2017) NRC.

Partij voor de Vrijheid Verkiezingsprogramma. Author unknown (n.d.).