For nearly a month, thousands of Dutch farmers have staged road blockades and other protests across the Netherlands, snarling traffic and grabbing headlines. The farmers and their allies have sprayed manure at government buildings, set bales of hay on fire and marched cows to The Hague. More recently, they’ve blockaded grocery distribution centers, leading to brief shortages on store shelves.
Protest organizers say the actions express opposition to a recently introduced government plan to reduce nitrogen emissions — a policy rollout that even its supporters say was botched. The new climate policy could shutter 30 percent of livestock farms in the nation, which is the European Union’s largest meat exporter, and critics say the government hasn’t done enough to communicate how affected farmers will be supported through this transition.
But the movement has also drawn support from nativist and nationalist right-wing actors around the world who claim the measure is part of a globalist plot against ordinary people and traditional ways of life. That’s made the protests the latest vehicle for right-wing groups around the world to fan fears of shadowy and interconnected efforts to crush freedom.
Like the Canadian and U.S. convoys or the French “gilets jaunes” protests, the Dutch tractor protests represent a vocal minority, said John Morijn, a professor of law and politics at the University of Groningen. And like those movements, this one offers a political opportunity far beyond the cow pastures, he added.
It “is a demonstration not only by farmers but also by all sorts of populists who are trying to jump on the occasion to use the same us-versus-them framing that they used to use, first for migration and then for covid,” he said. “The new us-versus-them team … is that the elites in the Netherlands are trying to cut back on traditional lifestyles, including by farmers.”
Nevertheless, the protests enjoy support and oxygen from international and internet actors. The right-wing citizen journalist Keean Bexte, who built his following during the Canadian trucker protests, has arrived on the scene to document this movement. Website domains named for the Dutch uprising link back to his alternative news site. And the story has been picked up on right-wing media far and wide, including on Fox News.
“Nothing is more effective for the left globally than climate politics,” Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson said on June 7. “It’s an existential crisis: ‘We’re all gonna die unless you obey and make us more powerful.’”
Tucker Carlson and the “Great Replacement Theory”
The far-right leverages myths of a pastoral Europe to argue that this is an attack on traditional Dutch ways of life — what Morijn calls “the usual symphony that the populists sing along to.”
Conspiracists expand this symphony. They argue the attack is actually part of a global conspiracy to starve people, that the World Economic Forum controls the Dutch government and that the farmland will be used to house immigrants – a version of the “Great Replacement Theory,” a racist conspiracy theory that posits shadowy figures are replacing white people with migrants.
Appearing on Tucker Carlson’s program on July 7, a right-wing Dutch media figure, Eva Vlaardingerbroek, said the plan was part of a “great reset” orchestrated by the government.
“It’s very clear that the government is not doing this because of a nitrogen crisis,” she said. “Farmers are hardworking, God fearing and especially self-sufficient people that are just standing in the way of their globalist agenda.”
“They’re doing this because they want these farmers’ land and they want it to house new immigrants,” Vlaardingerbroek said. “They also want it because the farmers are obviously standing in the way of the great reset plans that they have for us.”
American author Tucker Max has gotten onboard. Best known for early-aughts humor books like, “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” Max has pivoted in recent years to right-wing influencer status. In a tweet thread that racked up more than 24,000 likes, he argued that the situation in the Netherlands is part of a global conspiracy to steal food and make people complacent, using a false climate crisis as a smoke screen for their crimes.
“This is BIG. It goes way beyond the politics of a small European country,” Max wrote on July 6. “Unelected bureaucrats made up numbers, and here we are. They KNOW this is going to starve people around the world.”
This is a continuation of a conspiracy spread on the fringe internet for months and fueled by a handful of fires at farms and food facilities across the globe, said Katherine Keneally, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who has been tracking the protest movement.
“Those incidents have been used by conspiracists and particularly far right extremists to essentially tell the story that the destruction of these plants and farms is by high-profile individuals,” such as the government, George Soros or Bill Gates, “to starve out the population,” she said.
Tucker Carlson nodded to this idea in his program, arguing that this was an example of elites leveraging climate concerns to control people and suggesting it’s a harbinger of things to come in the U.S.
“You may have noticed the people in charge have a tendency to use fear and panic to get what they want. And what they want is to get richer and more powerful,” he said.
The kernel of truth: The Netherlands really is trying to tamp down on agricultural pollution
The seeds of the protests were sown decades ago, said Martijn de Rijk, a reporter for BNR Nieuwsradio who has been covering the protests, and a clumsy government rollout made a bad situation worse.
In the 1970s, the EU first set informal goals for its member states to reduce nitrogen emissions. In the Netherlands, that meant restrictions on a variety of industries, including its cattle and pig farms. The country is the world’s second largest agricultural exporter, and when meat is sent out, “the shit literally stays behind,” said de Rijk. The animal waste seeps into the earth and releases nitrogen into the air.
After years of no real action on those goals, the Dutch government late last month approved a proposal to cut its nitrogen emissions in half by 2030 — the country’s contribution to EU requirements. Because of the nation’s reliance on agriculture, an estimated 30 percent of the country’s 50,000 farmers may need to cease operations or move away from livestock entirely.
Around the same time, the government made a grave public relations mistake, said de Rijk, releasing a map that appeared to show that farms around protected nature preserves would need to cut their emissions by 95 percent — essentially wiping out the farms in those areas. With no additional information, it wasn’t clear if farmers would be compensated for their losses or if their lives and livelihoods had been considered at all.
“There’s a lot of critique on this part of the plan, that [the government] didn’t explain well enough what the alternative is going to be like and how farmers are going to be helped and that they’re not going to be thrown off their land,” said de Rijk.
“That’s a really big mistake [the government] made there. And that made it possible for some of the right-wing groups and political parties to tell an alternative story that it’s really about destroying farmers and destroying Dutch culture.”
On June 22, thousands of farmworkers rallied and drove tractors through Stroe, a village in the country’s center, demanding the government scrap the plans. In the weeks since, tractor-driving farmworkers and their supporters have staged more traffic blockades, sprayed fertilizer outside of city buildings and blocked grocery distribution centers. Some have showed up at parliament members’ houses, and dozens have been arrested.
Protesters are also angry about an incident of police violence — something that is unusual in a country where law enforcement rarely dispatch their weapons. A video shows a police officer fired a weapon at a tractor driven by a 16 year-old. The boy was unhurt, and the family plans to press charges, according to Dutch media reports.
Farmers, already facing an aging workforce, global supply chains still snarled after years of pandemic and many with mountains of debt fear being pushed off their land and out of the workforce. The government has done a poor job of communicating its plans to compensate those farmers, allowing right wing media figures and politicians to leverage legitimate grievances from farmers to promote anti-immigrant, anti-elite and anti-EU narratives, said Morijn.
“If you roll out the policy in such a convoluted way … and you combine that with dwindling trust and also the higher number of populists in Parliament, that sort of creates a powder keg,” he said.
“A further excuse to destabilize democracy”
The movement fits into the rising tide of populism, which was on the rise in recent years and spiked during the pandemic, said Bàrbara Molas, an expert on far-right extremism who will soon be joining the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
Such populist movements reflect a sense that “the social contract has been violated” — that their individual rights have been violated in favor of a greater good that doesn’t include them, Molas said.
The cause of Dutch farmers appeals to this strain of the right-wing abroad because it’s “a further excuse to destabilize democracy,” she added.
“Any protests whereby there’s a clear anti-state narrative — ‘We don’t trust the state because there’s no way to hold them accountable for what they’re doing [which is] directly affecting our future and our livelihood’ — then that’s used by extremist sections.”
In that sense, the global “conspiracy” — such as it stands — appears to go the other direction: a loose confederation of right-wing figures who back these sporadic outbursts then hold them up as evidence of a people’s movement in support of their shared ideology.
This is taking place across the world. As conservative populism takes hold in Hungary, for example, the MAGA wing of the American Republican Party has cozied up to the central European country’s autocratic leader whose success may offer a playbook for winning elections with a passionate, but comparatively small, political base.
At the core of that playbook is harnessing popular anger and resentment and redirecting it. What’s next for the farmers will be determined in the halls of government. But the strategy of using institutional failures and global crises to build power for some won’t go away any time soon.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.