Report

When Donald Met Nigel …

Fear of immigrants. Demagoguery. Support from undereducated voters. A peek inside the budding bromance between Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.

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Few mainstream Republicans campaign for Donald Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan has yet to stump for his party’s presidential nominee, nor has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The last two Republican presidents — George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush — have stayed on the sidelines of his campaign. But Nigel Farage, once the leader of the far-right UK Independence Party who led Britain out of the European Union in this summer’s so-called Brexit, is more than willing.

Speaking in Mississippi on Wednesday night, the British politician said, “We reached those people who have never voted in their lives but believed by going out and voting for Brexit they could take back control of their country, take back control of their borders, and get back their pride and self-respect.” Trump stood by his side, beaming. Not long ago, the GOP nominee fashioned himself “MR. BREXIT,” an explicit effort to ride the coattails of Farage’s unlikely and unexpected victory. (Trump himself noted at the time of the British vote in June that he had no idea what it was about and congratulated Scottish voters on electing to leave when they overwhelmingly sought to stay in Europe.)

Then, without endorsing Trump outright, Farage said, “I will say this: If I was an American citizen, I wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me!”

The crowd gathered to see Trump was a bit perplexed; an informal survey by the Guardian found that eight out of 10 people at the rally had no idea who the Brit onstage was. But for people watching news clips from the rally that ran Wednesday night into Thursday, Trump’s intentions were clear: He was aligning himself with Farage, an outsider underdog who successfully bucked London’s political class to divorce Britain from Europe.

The two share many similarities. Both decry immigrants and use race to rally their supporters. Both believe their respective countries are losing their identities to foreigners. Both seem to think liberal politicians are variously in the pockets of Wall Street, or The City in London, and that those establishment types ignore working men and women. Trump and Farage appeal to voters without a college degree. They’re isolationists. And they’re demagogues who don’t hesitate to lie if it advances their political fortunes.

“Populists tend to color themselves in what the greatest fear is, and that’s what Farage did” when he stoked fears about immigrants taking over Britain, Heather Conley, the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy on Thursday. “There certainly are a lot of similarities” between the two men, she added.

Farage is very familiar with the electoral terrain Trump is mining. The American businessman’s campaign closely mirrors the one run by “Leave” proponents. Trump has touched a nerve with white men without a college degree who have largely been left behind by the recovery from the Great Recession and who view the rise of minority groups with concern and, in some cases, outright hostility. Trump also flirts with the far-right fringes of American politics by insulting Muslims and Latinos while insisting African-Americans live in poverty and with crime that makes their neighborhoods worse than “war zones,” despite the fact that these descriptions do not apply to the majority of black Americans.

Trump insists the upcoming election is “rigged” in favor of his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, though he offers no proof. He makes claims about the health of the American economy, crime statistics, polls, and trade that have no relationship with reality. But the untruthfulness of his statements has done little to lessen support among his base.

Farage ran a very similar campaign to persuade Britons to leave the European Union. Sixty-six percent of people without a college degree voted to leave Europe, while 71 percent of Britons with a college degree voted to stay. The former UKIP leader, who resigned after the vote but still, ironically, holds a seat in the European Parliament, was also able to persuade older voters to abandon Brussels; 61 percent of Britons older than 65 voted for Brexit. Similarly, 59 percent of white voters without a college degree back Trump, and voters 65 and older support Trump over Clinton 49 percent to 45 percent.

Proponents of the “Leave” campaign also weren’t afraid to lie to win their vote. They notoriously repeated oft-debunked claims about how much money the U.K. sends to Europe, for example. Farage was forced to admit the day after the election that the claim made over and over again by “Leave” campaigners that all money once sent to Brussels would go to public health care in the U.K. was false; that money will not.

But those who voted to leave proved impervious to the facts, or bought into the “Leave” camp’s distortions. On the day after the historic vote, in some cases, many were having second thoughts. After the June 23 vote, the polling firm Opinium found that 7 percent of those who voted to leave, or 1.2 million people, said they regretted voting to leave.

Farage also isn’t afraid to embrace elements of the far right. During the referendum campaign, Farage often talked about taking back Britain, implying that immigrants somehow make Britain less British. A UKIP supporter attacked and killed a center-left British member of Parliament who’d supported accepting Syrian refugees shortly before the vote, for instance.

Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” suggests that somehow America is becoming less American. He sees a country infiltrated by Muslim “terrorists,” Mexican “rapists” and “drug dealers,” and cities riddled with crime. “What have you got to lose?” he’s recently begun asking African-American and Hispanic audiences in an attempt at outreach.

Speaking to a Mississippi radio station during his trip to support Trump, Farage used provocative language that could have come from the GOP nominee himself. Farage said he no longer hears English spoken on his streets anymore and called immigration the “absolute key” to his Brexit victory.

“It was gradually people saw their way of life was changing, their quality of life was deteriorating, and they kept being told by their leaders, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it because our GDP is going up so all immigration must be a good thing.’”

He added, “Where we struck the chord is, yeah, our GDP may be going up through mass immigration but who’s benefiting? It’s the big businesses getting cheap labor who are benefiting.”

One thing that Farage secured that Trump still covets: electoral victory. Before the Brexit vote, polls, betting shops, and talking heads all confidently predicted that British voters would choose to stay in the EU, even though the polls were close. The result — 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving Europe — came as a shock to most and proved politically lethal to David Cameron, then prime minister.

Two months on, new Prime Minister Theresa May has yet to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, an obscure provision in a European charter that would actually begin the process of unraveling the U.K. from the thicket of European laws and regulations. But Conley, from CSIS, believes it will happen.

“For a party of obscurity to be able to push David Cameron and the politics of it to this referendum, it’s quite an extraordinary accomplishment,” she said. “I know a lot of people think there will be a redo” of the referendum. “But I think Brexit is going to happen.”

Trump is hoping for a similar, unexpected result. The Real Clear Politics poll aggregator has Clinton up 6 points nationwide; Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com gives Clinton an 84 percent chance to win. Polls in key battleground states have widened since this summer’s political conventions, and even Democrats sniff an outside chance at an upset of their own in some seemingly solid Republican states, like Georgia.

Without a sharp turnaround in the few months remaining, Trump won’t be “MR. BREXIT” but the thing he seemingly hates the most: a loser.

Photo credit: JONATHAN BACHMAN/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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