The following opinion piece was written by Mehran Khalili for Diem 25. In the light of Geert Wilders election victory in the Netherlands Mehran argues whenever a disruption candidate does well on the right, the reaction from the mainstream and the left is anything but analytical. That has to change.
LESS SHOCK AND MORE STRATEGY NEEDED AFTER GEERT WILDER’S VICTORY
For scientists to develop an antidote, they need to have a deep understanding of the venom. Boxers meticulously analyse their opponents’ techniques, using slow-motion videos of fights during training. IT administrators hire hackers to test for weaknesses in their systems.
This principle of ‘know your adversary’ is equally applicable in politics. So it’s frustrating that whenever a disruption candidate does well in the polls – particularly from the right end of the political spectrum — the reaction from the mainstream and the left is anything but analytical.
I’m talking about Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who emerged victorious in last Thursday’s national elections with a quarter of the vote. But I could equally be referring to Donald Trump in the US. Narendra Modi in India. Viktor Orban in Hungary. Or Javier Milei in Argentina earlier this month.
Just look at some of these shocked headlines regarding Wilders, that are driving an equally shocked social media conversation. The same panicked descriptions of the candidate we see with every far-right win: extremist, racist, populist (what does that even mean?). He’s a bombshell, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, peddling simplistic solutions and “snake oil” to the unsuspecting public (oh wait, that was also Milei in Argentina). offensive, hostile and… unrepentant!
Sure, there’s some discussion of the actual issues in the coverage. But this usually takes the shape of caustic critiques of the winner’s policies, as commentators try to explain, with a helping of scorn, how voters got suckered into self-sabotage.
And this, my friends, is a problem.
Hindering the fightback
Look, I’m gravely concerned with how the far right is slipping into mainstream politics across Europe. We’re closer than ever to global war; our climate is collapsing before our eyes. We need transnational collaboration to tackle problems of this scale, not nationalism and a return to fossil fuels. All of the above descriptors about Wilders and his regressive policies hold some truth.
But as I write, five days after Wilders’ win, I’m not yet seeing a move by people who oppose him – especially on the left – to learn from this victory. And to use it to empower the fightback.
It’s all quite reminiscent of Trump’s time in office, which was marked by the other side utterly losing their shit. For those four years and beyond, Democrats and Never Trumpers aimed to delegitimise their clownish president as a Threat To Democracy. They tried to take him down with indictments, impeachments and spurious allegations of collusion with Russia. Pretty much everything except what they should have been doing: learning from Trump’s win and hearing what a large part of the US electorate were saying by voting for him. Then building a massive, unifying campaign to address voters’ needs, heal the country and beat Trump resoundingly at the ballot box.
OK, Joe Biden did win in 2020. But he did so as the anti-Trump, not because he was a great candidate. Trumpism endured, and the US today is more divided than ever. And the man himself? Oh, he’s on track to become president again in a year’s time.
And so, back in Holland, in the wake of Wilders’ victory, we’re heading down the same path of alarm over analysis. Mainstream outrage persists; the opposition are implying, predictably, that his win is a threat to democracy. And activists are resorting to histrionics to protest Wilders’ policies, begging other parties to keep him out of power and…jumping in a pond.
What we should be asking
As activists and analysts, we need to adopt an inquiring posture. OK, we might see the polling results and panic, because we’re human. But the next day, we should look at our opponent’s win with curiosity and wonder: how did they pull it off?
And then we should set about examining the venom to develop the antidote. By asking questions about how our opponents built a winning campaign machine. How was the candidate funded? Which parts of the political system enabled or facilitated their rise? What public endorsements or partnerships did they form?
We should look at our opponent’s campaign operations, and ask: What strategies or aspects of the campaign can we adapt or learn from? Were there any mistakes or weaknesses in the campaign that we can avoid? How was their campaign structured and staffed? What tactics did they employ that differed from standard practices? What were the pivotal moments or phases in the campaign? Which key messages resonated, and why?
And, of course, we should pay close attention to the demand side – the electorate. Because when voters say fuck you, it’s time to listen to them.
We should ask: What were people really telling us, by giving this person their support? (If the answer we come up with is ‘they hate immigrants’ or ‘they want easy solutions’, we should look deeper.) What did this result suggest about the electorate that we didn’t know before? What underlying needs in voters did the candidate address, that could explain their popularity?
(To apply this to Wilders: we should look beyond the cultural issues that steal the headlines – disturbing as they are – and see the bigger picture that voters are responding to. That familiar mix of exploding living costs, of elites perceived as no longer representing working people, of resistance to globalisation and a loss of identity and purpose.)
There’s no one place to get all this information. It likely exists only in fragments across the digital landscape, buried in news reports and op-eds. Some of it will be in longer think-pieces or investigative stories. Some of it we can glean from watching the candidates closely and listening to their public statements; in debates, press conferences and rallies. And some of it may only emerge months after the election.
But the time to start is now. Yes, like that boxer training for his next fight.
When the far right makes gains, it’s a political setback. And it’s fair to react with outrage and dismay.
But after the initial shock, we should treat their win as a case study for us to deconstruct. To discover what the far right campaign did that our favoured one didn’t. And to understand what people were trying to say by voting for them.
So when the rage subsides, we should adopt a curious, composed, investigative approach, and dig right in. Then adapt our tactics to suit.
Study their game so we can beat them at it, next time around.