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What Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have learned from the Trump playbook

The US president’s brand of attention-seeking nationalist populism is taking over British politics

Donald Trump began his state  visit to Britain in typical fashion, describing the Duchess of Sussex as “nasty” before he even arrived in London. He then used a spare moment on Air Force One to expectorate some thoughts about London mayor Sadiq Khan. “He is a stone cold loser who should focus on crime in London, not me,” he tweeted.

Future historians will argue for decades about whether Trump’s wild, bullying statements are strategic or instinctive. Either way, he has perfected a political register for leadership in the smartphone era, where we don’t so much read the news as rubber-neck at it from the tiny windows to the world we carry in our pockets and hands. The gorier the better: we’ll slow down a little for a gratuitous insult, but what makes us slam on the brakes and gawp is something that traduces a particular identity group.

Picking on Sadiq Khan, one of the highest profile Muslim politicians in Europe, qualifies. Criticising Meghan Markle, a mixed-race woman who has just given birth to Prince Harry’s baby, definitely qualifies. (Incidentally, the attack on Markle is what drives me away from the idea that Trump is operating on some strategic level that we metropolitan elitists just can’t understand. Sir, Americans are free to attack our teeth, our tea and perhaps even our politicians. But the royal family? Don’t make us unconvincingly threaten to reconquer you.)

But this is the Trump way. Fire, fire, fire with the blunderbuss and don’t worry if a shot or two hits an innocent bystander. Keep moving forwards, even as your opponents return fire. Never seriously consider their criticisms; just loose off more shots.

It is a strategy that has benefited Britain’s Trump tribute act, Boris Johnson. As an opinion columnist on the Telegraph, Johnson specialised in offence, from writing in 2002 that the Queen loved the Commonwealth because it “supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” to his recent glib description of Muslim women in burqas “looking like letter boxes”.

Such comments are a deliberate provocation, pushing the boundaries of what it is permissible for a senior politician to say. In an attention economy, they are hard currency. Any backlash can be portrayed as “political correctness gone mad” or “liberal Stalinism”. Even having to say sorry can be taken as proof that once again, the liberal totalitarians have triumphed. It is a game in which every path leads to victory. Yes, it is divisive, but for every voter who is repulsed, the calculation runs, another is attracted.

Johnson is the frontrunner in the contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party and the next prime minister, and he has undoubtedly benefited from Trump’s continual stretching of the limits of acceptable political speech. The @realDonaldTrump Twitter account is followed by both politicians and commentators in Westminster and beyond, and therefore influences the tenor of the British national conversation. When the US president’s tweets sometimes read as flatly deranged, it makes our homegrown populists look merely… colourful.

That helps to explain how we reached a point at which otherwise moderate Conservative MPs are endorsing Johnson for the leadership, and 124,000 Tory members are clamouring to anoint him as our prime minister. It feels redundant to rehearse the charge sheet, but their collective amnesia should be challenged. This is a journalist sacked from the Times for making up a quotation from his godfather. A man described by Max Hastings, his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, as “a gold medal egomaniac”. A man sacked as a shadow minister by Michael Howard in 2004 for lying. A man who said that the former US president Barack Obama had an “ancestral dislike” of Britain as a “part-Kenyan”. A man who took credit for many of Ken Livingstone’s ideas as London mayor, merrily slapping his name on them, while his own grand schemes – the Garden Bridge, and the purchase of three water cannon – had to be scrapped at the taxpayers’ expense.

“If the day ever comes that Boris Johnson becomes tenant of Downing Street, I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike,” wrote Max Hastings in 2012, “because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country.”

Boris Johnson, however, is only a casually Trumpian politician. He is certainly no strategist, and has merely benefited from the populist mood rather than actively trying to shape it. There is another British politician who has seriously studied the art of Trumpism: Nigel Farage.

The Brexit Party leader might face milkshakes on the campaign trail in Britain, but there’s one place he always receives a warm welcome. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is an annual meeting for the American right’s influentials, and Farage has become one of its most popular imported speakers.

This year’s gathering began on 27 February at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Centre in National Harbor, Maryland. Headline sponsors include Dragging Canoe, a “second-amendment themed entertainment venue and restaurant” in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; and, of course, the National Rifle Association. Their logos dominated the banners behind Farage as he gave a speech celebrating the populist right’s triumphs. “We were told that it was a 98 per cent certainty that Crooked Hillary would win. I think she’s called Crooked Hillary, isn’t she? I mean, someone coined that phrase and he’s good at this.”

Watching that speech is a faintly eerie experience. There’s the name-calling, the assertions of unwarranted underdog status, the jeremiads against the liberal media and the obligatory boo-lines about the hate figures of the day: the New York Times, CNN and the young social-media darling of the Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was an English remix of the Trump playbook, with the president’s pursed little Henry VIII lips replaced by that distinctive frog-like cackle.

Since quitting the leadership of Ukip for third time in July 2016, Farage has been on a kind of hard-right extended gap year. It has helped him refine his talking points, make new contacts and raise his international profile. The fruits of his labour are visible in his interviews and on the campaign trail for the European elections, in which his new Brexit Party won with 31.6 per cent of the vote. When it comes to Britain and America, the real special relationship is between Nigel Farage and a loose network of right-wing populists around the world.

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It took time for Nigel Farage to become an international brand. He first spoke at the CPAC conference in 2015 and received a lukewarm reception. According to Politico, his speech “focused largely on critiques of the European Union and the euro currency – hardly crowd-pleasers at CPAC – but he really ran into trouble when he came out swinging against military interventions of all kinds”.

Farage is nothing if not adaptable. In the years since, his message has become sharper – and more consciously Trumpian. His stance on intervention has also become more accepted on the American right, because Trump is a reluctant hawk. The story of Brexit is now woven into a broader populist narrative of elite-bashing, which is more palatable to foreign audiences. (In this world-view, the liberal elite is simultaneously terrifyingly powerful and completely cowed by recent right-wing victories.)

Farage has given the attacks on “fake news media” a British twist by painting the BBC as the emblem of the liberal elite. Last month, he turned an interview with Andrew Marr on BBC One into a chance to denounce the broadcaster’s bias. Asked whether he was still supportive of privatising parts of the NHS, Farage replied: “I’ve never in my life seen a more ridiculous interview than this. You are not prepared to talk about what is going on in this country today. You’re in denial, the BBC is in denial, the Tory and Labour parties are in denial.”

Still, this is Farage-lite. In online interviews he goes further, adopting the rhetoric of the alt-right. In April 2018, Farage appeared on Infowars, a conspiracy theorists’ channel now banned from YouTube, to tell host Alex Jones that “globalists have wanted to have some form of conflict with Russia as an argument for us all to surrender our national sovereignty and give it up to a higher global level”. The European Union, he said, was “the prototype for the new world order”.

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To spend any time in the media universe inhabited by Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán and their allies is to enter a mirror dimension. Everything that the mainstream holds to be true is reversed.

Farage’s speech to CPAC provides several examples. It is an article of faith in this universe that right-wing populists are demonised underdogs, despite their strong electoral showings everywhere from France to Italy to Sweden. “Sometimes, if you’re on this side of the argument, it feels as if we’re living under constant assault,” Farage said. “And that’s because We. Are. Living. Under. Constant. Assault.” And yet, Trump is president of the United States.

Of course, living under constant assault is great for gun sales, just as “preppers” – survivalists preparing for the apocalypse – relish Infowars adverts for hunting gear, water purifiers and protein supplements. (In one segment, Alex Jones claimed that fluoridation was a government plot. “What do you think tap water is? It’s a gay bomb, baby!”)

In his 2019 CPAC speech, Farage decried the “ever more fantastical conspiracy theories” that “the Russians pumped in money” to the US presidential election. In this telling, Trump – who came into politics peddling the racist lie that Barack Obama was ineligible to be president because he was not born in the US, and there was a birth certificate out there somewhere to prove it – is recast as a victim.

“The campaign against your president… I think the whole thing is pretty disgusting,” Farage continued, describing legitimate scrutiny of an elected official. “There can never have been a president who was subject to more abuse and vitriol than Donald Trump.”

Again, sir, if I may? Lincoln, JFK, Reagan. They were all shot.

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While the populist right shares a playbook, it is tempting to overstate the links between the various factions. Yes, they all meet one another and circulate around favoured TV programmes, radio shows and web broadcasts. They introduce one another to friendly media barons and super-wealthy donors. But that is what you would expect from politicians who share overarching goals in an era of networked communication. It’s interesting, too, that transatlantic (and pan-European) populists are not operating covertly: all this stuff is out there, broadcast on YouTube channels with millions of subscribers, aired on Facebook pages with huge followings and articulated in conference centres.

The American version is particularly brash, because… well, America. President Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon allowed a documentary-maker to follow him as he attempted to set up a hard-right alliance, including a foundation in Brussels called the Movement. In one clip, Bannon told Nigel Farage that he wanted to unite the Facebook-savvy Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán. “We help knit together this populist nationalist movement throughout the world,” Bannon said. “So we’ve got guys, ’cause guys in Egypt are coming to me, Modi’s guys in India, Duterte, you know, and we get Orbán, and we are somehow some sort of convening authority.”

“Conceptually I like it,” replied Farage. He saw the plan as a “fightback against the globalists”. (Farage ultimately did not join the Movement.)

Matteo Salvini of Italy, Le Pen, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Orbán, Farage, Trump, Duterte, Modi, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Sweden Democrats… There are many shades of nationalist populism, each of which has evolved into a unique strain thanks to the Petri dish of its host country.

If people aren’t taking enough notice it’s not because it’s a shadowy network, but because it’s part of a new normal.

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During his state visit, Trump made time for a phone call with Boris Johnson and an afternoon meeting with Farage. “I got to know him when he liked my campaign and he actually came to a speech and I met him,” Trump said of Farage in the Sunday Times on 2 June. “I think he is a terrific person.” Farage, he said, should be involved in the Brexit negotiations.

In Farage’s speech to CPAC, he had mocked Obama’s intervention in the EU referendum, when the then US president said that outside the EU Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for trade deals. But times change, and now it is obviously fine for a foreign leader to pronounce on domestic matters. In the Conservative leadership race, Trump praised Boris Johnson, saying that he “would be excellent. He has been very positive about me and our country.”

Johnson seems like a natural part of the Trump Alliance. In March, Bannon praised Johnson as a “guy with big ideas… the way he’s lost so much weight… very inspiring”.

But the politician who wrote two columns on his EU referendum position – one backing Leave, the other Remain – is an opportunist rather than an ideologue. Johnson will only pose as a Trumpian figure when it suits him.

In that meeting with Bannon, Farage criticised the former foreign secretary for his lack of focus. “He gives the appearance of struggling to concentrate for very long on anything,” Farage said. “He doesn’t have a big political philosophy.”

And so it is not a surprise that the start of Johnson’s leadership campaign has been (by his standards) curiously sober. In his launch video on 3 June, he talked about policies other than Brexit, and posed with a family wearing turbans. Apart from reiterating his commitment to leaving the EU with or without a deal on 31 October, it was a video that could have been produced by the more liberal candidates.

With one eye on a possible general election, Johnson needs to recapture his old appeal as the “Heineken candidate”, reaching the parts of the electorate that other Tories cannot. The Trump playbook is successful, but it is also divisive. In the US, the Republicans were helped by the oddities of the electoral college. In the recent European elections, Farage was bolstered by low turnout, proportional voting, the rejection of the Conservative Party and the perception that MEPs don’t matter.

Would Boris Johnson “re-rat”, tacking back towards the populist right, if he became prime minister? It seems likely. If he starts to talk about “globalists”, the fake news media and tap water, be afraid.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 07 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump alliance