Natalie Righton, a political correspondent for the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, says it’s been “strange” to watch American politics from afar since the election of Donald Trump, in particular seeing what she always viewed as a stable country turn “a bit chaotic.”
But when American-inspired chaos crept onto her home turf – after the new US ambassador to the Netherlands, Peter Hoekstra, got caught in a web of untruths regarding Muslim radicalism – she took a stand.
At a press conference called at Mr. Hoekstra’s residence on his first day on the job this month, journalists questioned him about comments he made prior to being nominated ambassador by President Trump, about Muslim “no-go” zones in the Netherlands and about politicians and cars “burned.” Did he say those comments or not?
After several refusals to give a straight answer, Ms. Righton declared in exasperation – in a comment that’s since become famous around the globe – “This is the Netherlands. You have to answer questions!”
She says it was a spontaneous response. But looking back, it can be seen as part of a more proactive defense of values on display across Europe since Mr. Trump has come into office. Among journalists and activists, citizens and heads of state, many of those in Europe who do not support the US administration are not just voicing disapproval, but actively defending their stances and policies on immigration and human rights, climate policy, or truth.
Protests against American power, foreign policy, and successive presidents are nothing new in Europe. After one year with Trump in office, views of US leadership around the globe at 30 percent are at historic lows, according to a new Gallup survey, and at just 25 percent in Europe. But they aren’t the worst on record. Only 18 percent approved of US leadership in the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency.
What is different now is Trump’s “unpredictability,” says Kathleen Burk, professor of contemporary history at University College London, which she says “has energized other countries to try to do something about it.”
The citizen iteration of this is expected to be on full display at Davos this week as the World Economic Forum gathers in Switzerland.
When Andreas Freimüller, founding member of the Swiss campaigning organization Campax, learned that Trump would be attending the annual summit in the Swiss alps, he immediately started drawing up a petition called “Trump not Welcome.” It drew more than 15,000 signatures in the first three days.
But if the theme of the campaign is “persona non grata,” in reality Mr. Freimüller says he wants the US president’s presence as a rallying point to reinforce values on climate policy, gender equity, and racism. Their petition, which says that Trump shouldn’t be given a podium for his “America First” policies, also underscores their contrasting worldview: “The World first, not America First!”
“We know we are not an amazingly big and important country,” says Freimüller, who has applied to protest in Zurich and Davos this week. “But we are a country and we demand to be taken seriously. So it’s our opportunity to be heard now.”
A chilly reception
Over the weekend, Campax teamed up with Action Together: Zurich, a group of American expats, Swiss, and other nationals, for a “we are sorry” march on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and the global women’s marches. They handed out fliers of anti-Trump actions people could take, such as supporting nongovernmental organizations or writing letters to newspapers, says volunteer Alexandra Dufresne.
Some of those they engaged supported Trump's leadership, arguing that Hillary Clinton would not have been any better, or that US policy under Trump is just being more honest about American goals than the US usually is. Others recognized similar strains of xenophobia in their own countries, Ms. Dufresne says. But the majority voiced condemnation of Trump's leadership.
That sentiment is widely seen as the motive for Trump canceling a trip to Britain, a stunning turn in relations for America’s closest ally historically. Trump tweeted that he decided not to visit London in protest of a new location for the US Embassy in London. But his visit had been contested from the outset, debated in Parliament and drawing thousands of fans to a Facebook page set up by a group called the “Stop Trump Coalition,” who promised “one of the biggest demonstrations in British history.” The fervor grew after Trump retweeted anti-Muslim videos posted by a British far-right group, leading British Prime Minister Theresa May to publicly call out Trump as “wrong.”
“Rushing to offer him a state visit in retrospect must appear a mistake,” says Tim Oliver, a transatlantic expert at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been even more outspoken in his condemnation of some of Trump’s decisions, above all pulling out of the Paris climate accord. “I do believe that's a big mistake, I told him but there is no new negotiation,” Mr. Macron, expected to give a major speech in favor of free trade this week at Davos, told the BBC over the weekend. “You join or you don't join.”
'Not an alternative fact, but a lie'
It’s not that American allies are easily watching the US diverge from the the expected norm. Ms. May’s condemnation of Trump’s retweet of Britain’s far-right was preceded by a recognition of the deep ties between the two anglophone countries. Dutch politicians have every incentive to get beyond the awkward start of their new American ambassador so as not to strain the bilateral relationship.
But within that reality, says Righton, there is still room for action. The Dutch press received the highest ratings in Europe of 38 countries surveyed around the globe by Pew Research Center on press fairness. That is not something that Dutch journalists would give up easily. In the case of the American ambassador, in fact, accountability won. He finally apologized for his misstatement.
As a political reporter, Righton says she speaks to politicians on a daily basis, and while they might evade questions, embellish facts, or make false campaign promises, outright lies are not the norm. “If you say more people were at your inauguration than your predecessor, if you can see in photos that is not true, for us that is not an alternative fact, but a lie.”
As Righton puts it of her own tiny role: “What is happening in the US, you can’t just transport that to my country.”