Nervous leaders across Europe are looking to the Netherlands this week for clues about elections this year in France and Germany. There, anti-Islam, anti-European Union candidates also are capitalizing on fears about a wave of mostly Muslim refugees and migrants who have surged over their borders in recent years.
Even if Wilders is barred from power by the wide range of parties that are refusing to cooperate with him, he already has tugged his nation’s political discourse toward a far harder line on immigrants. In a bid to appeal to Wilders voters, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said this year that immigrants who do not work harder to fit into Dutch society should leave — a stark departure from a centuries-old Dutch tradition of acceptance.
“These elections are historic, because the Netherlands can choose on the 15th of March if we want to give our land away further or if we are going to recapture it,” Wilders said this month.
Mainstream politicians shake their heads at Wilders's contradictions, even as they scramble to match his common-person's touch. The man who is railing at the establishment is one of the longest-serving members of the Dutch parliament, a fixture of The Hague for nearly 20 years. He is a man who directs his message straight to the gut of ordinary Dutch voters but has hardly any contact with them, as assassination concerns have forced him to live on the move — surrounded by a bristling guard detail — since the 2004 murder of the anti-Islam filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
Although Wilders dominates Dutch airwaves and political discussions, he rarely grants interviews to the news media, preferring to avoid tough questions by communicating through Twitter. And despite his bar-the-door attitude toward immigration, his mother was born in Indonesia and his hair dye has bleached away the dark curls that once drew racist schoolyard taunts.
“Ever since I knew him starting in 1997, he has been talking about the dangers of radical Islam. And no one in politics was interested at the time,” said Mark Verheijen, a former senior leader of the ruling center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, where Wilders started his career before splitting to form his own party.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “he really got wings,” Verheijen said. “He talked about it on Page 32 of the newspaper and suddenly it was a Page One topic.”
In Wilders’s southeastern Dutch home town of Venlo, residents are split about whether their native son is a source of pride or shame. The future firebrand grew up here in middle-class comfort, attending public schools that drew from Venlo’s mostly white, Catholic population; roaming the compact, manicured streets; and pursuing minor rebellions, such as wearing a leather jacket in class.
“It wasn’t the person that you now see,” said Joep Bingels, a former classmate who said he and other boys would pretend to have kung fu fights in the Wilders family basement.
Later, Wilders traveled to Israel and worked on a kibbutz there, a trip he described as transformative in shaping his pro-Israel, anti-Muslim views.
He has kept his distinctive regional accent, a point of pride for locals who have long bridled at rule by the faraway Protestant elite in The Hague. Wilders always has maintained a supportive stronghold in his home region.
“A lot of people think the things he says, but he says it,” said Marc Schatorjé, 49, who works as a supervisor at a roofing tile manufacturer near Venlo. “I don’t have a problem with the whole of Islam, just Moroccans and immigrants who don’t make you feel safe on the street anymore.”
But others resent his pull on the nation’s political discourse.
“Every city has its idiot, and ours is Geert Wilders,” said Abbie Chalgoum, 37, a high school teacher who moved to Venlo from Morocco when he was a child.
“When you have a prime minister saying you have to work harder to fit in,” he said of Rutte’s message to immigrants, “can’t we work equally? Don’t we have equal chances?”
For now, the answer may be no. Wilders pulled ahead in opinion polling after Trump's November victory, starting the year with 20 percent support in the polls, a result that would have made him the dominant political leader in the fragmented Dutch political landscape. His appeal was only enhanced by a December criminal conviction for inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans.
“It’s ammunition for his populist argument that there is an elite that doesn’t listen to the concerns of ordinary citizens,” said Matthijs Rooduijn, an expert on populist parties at Utrecht University.
Wilders has since slumped to second place, but only after the prime minister took on rhetoric that could have come from the challenger’s mouth.
His participation in governing the Netherlands would not be unprecedented — he was a member of a ruling coalition from 2010 until 2012 — but in an era of rising Euroskepticism, his most radical messages have powerful new traction. Wilders has long been financially supported by some of the most extreme anti-Islam voices in the United States, and those activists have moved straight into the White House with Trump's election — a 2015 donation to Wilders of about $125,000 from David Horowitz, an anti-Islam activist who writes for Breitbart News, was the biggest single political donation in the country that year.
Still, most observers expect that Wilders will not take part in any coalition following the election, forcing mainstream parties to form a broad and weak alliance to muster a majority in parliament. If it fails, Wilders may be the long-term beneficiary.
“Wilders is assuming that everything will be broken very soon and that when it does, the urgency to ask him to be the prime minister will be bigger than the aversion to work together with him,” said Wim Kortenoeven, a former ally who split after internal party struggles.
Wilders says that he is seeking ballot-box triumph.
“There is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland who makes the streets unsafe,” Wilders said at a campaign appearance in the town of Spijkenisse, where he spoke in English to drive home his message to his broad new international audience.
“I have one message to the Dutch people, and that is, if you want to regain your country, if you want to make the Netherlands for the people of the Netherlands,” he said, “then you can only vote for one party.”
Annabell Van den Berghe contributed to this report.