Nigel Farage Goes to Washington
Photographer: Kalpesh Lathigra for Bloomberg Businessweek
“I’ve been coming to this city quite regularly for quite a long time,” Nigel Farage said on Dec. 1, flashing a grin as he sipped coffee in a cafe at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington. “Speeches, lunches, dinners with groups of Republicans.” He rolled his eyes. “Not this trip,” he said, laughing. “For the first time in 20 years, I’m a free man.” A tourist approached to request a selfie, which delighted Farage—it’s his thing. Three days after the election, Farage tweeted a shot of himself and Donald Trump roaring with laughter inside Trump’s gold-plated elevator that went viral. Now everyone wanted one.
Farage, who just stepped down as leader of the U.K. Independence Party, is only too happy to oblige. If Trump is the greatest beneficiary of his upset victory, Farage is a close second and may be enjoying it more. Ever since he appeared onstage with Trump at a Mississippi rally in August—“The man behind Brexit!” Trump exulted—Farage has become an unlikely hero to Trump-crazed Republicans. With an instinct for the spotlight as sharp as the president-elect’s, he was in Washington to roam the halls of Congress, dropping in on senators and representatives for celebratory visits, the way Tom Brady might stop by Jimmy Kimmel Live after winning the Super Bowl. “I’m catching up with some people,” Farage said. “And also meeting a few new ones.”
On his agenda was, as ever, the matter of advancing his own standing and political celebrity. “Back in the United Kingdom, a lot of reporters want to know what’s happening, what the new team’s about, where it’s going to go,” he said. “Well, I think I probably can speak on that with more authority than most British people.”
But to curious Republicans in Congress, and soon to Trump himself, Farage was also advancing another idea—one that could potentially reshape global trade in a Trump-led world. “I’m trying to make the case,” he said, “that a big, positive signal from a Trump administration that says they want a bilateral trade deal with the United Kingdom, that comes relatively early, would really be very good news.”
Such a move would upend U.S. policy toward the U.K. and the European Union. In April, President Obama visited London to lay out the dire economic consequences he said would befall the U.K. if it voted to leave the EU in June’s referendum. “Maybe, at some point down the line, there might be a [bilateral] U.K.-U.S. trade agreement,” Obama said. “But it’s not going to happen anytime soon, because our focus is on negotiating with a big bloc—the European Union—to get a trade agreement done.” If Britons voted for Brexit, Obama warned, the U.K. would wind up a diminished partner, relegated to “the back of the queue.”
Farage’s proposal would move the U.K. to the front of the queue, sweep away the whole Obama-Clinton chessboard, roil the global economy, and, with great fanfare, imprint the Trump stamp on U.S. trade policy, possibly even before he’s sworn in—all things that would seem to appeal to the president-elect. And, if Trump were to carry through, Farage would have struck a mighty blow against “bloc-ism” and for nationalism. Some of Trump’s top advisers share his vision and say Farage’s proposal is sure to get a careful hearing. “His ideas will always be listened to seriously in a Trump White House,” said Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist.
Until recently, the idea of Farage as an important politician on the global stage was hard to imagine. The former City of London metals trader turned anti-EU leader of UKIP was widely considered the Pied Piper for, as then-Prime Minister David Cameron put it in 2006, a band of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists,” who couldn’t even get himself elected to the British Parliament. Farage reveled in the disdain.
One person who did take him seriously was Bannon, until recently head of the Breitbart News Network. “The great Bannon,” as Farage mock-ironically calls him, shared his antipathy to what both men view as sovereignty-leeching multilateral organizations such as NATO and the EU, and to the influx of foreign immigrants who they say threaten the health and vitality of their respective nations. Many of the Washington speeches and dinners Farage conducted were organized by Bannon, who saw Farage as a fellow revolutionary and a tribune of a hard-right global uprising.
By the time the Brexit result shocked the world on June 23, Farage was well-known to the whole coterie of right-wing populist Republicans who’d gravitated to Trump. “They were all thrilled when Brexit happened,” Farage told me. “I got texts and letters from them all, plenty of congratulations. Bannon was over the moon.” Having made up his mind to step down from UKIP, Farage traveled to Cleveland for the Republican convention, to bask in his heightened status among his giddy American allies.
The connection to Trump, he claims, came not through Bannon but Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, whom Farage met while drinking in Cleveland. “It was a bit odd, really,” Farage said. “I meet people in coffee bars mostly late at night—or bars, anyway. So I bump into the Mississippi delegation, and they invite me down. That then coincides with a big change in the Trump team”—Bannon and Kellyanne Conway were put in charge of the campaign on Aug. 17—“and suddenly Trump is calling himself Mr. Brexit, and I’m in Mississippi anyway. They wanted a bit of an authentic voice at a Trump rally, so that’s how it came to be.”
The appearance of a fringe British politician at a Trump rally in the Deep South drew dismissive chuckles from the U.S. political cognoscenti. Bannon recalled a New York Times reporter who appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe remarking that 99 percent of Mississippians would have no clue who this foreigner was in their midst. Bryant, according to Bannon, knew better. “The cosmopolitan elites in Washington and New York and the members of the mainstream media have no earthly idea of the symbolic power of Nigel Farage to the ‘deplorables’—those working-class men and women who delivered President-elect Trump his stunning victory,” Bannon said.
By all accounts, Trump himself recognized the symbolism better than most and adopted Farage as something between a talisman and a mascot. Soon, Trump was declaring that the election would be “Brexit times five” or “Brexit times 50” and mainlining the Farage-Bannon antiglobalist worldview from the stump. When Trump won, Farage was the first foreign politician to meet with him—no accident, say senior Trump officials. Shortly afterward Farage became the object of a startlingly unorthodox (though thoroughly Trumpian) public lobbying campaign conducted on Twitter to have him named the British ambassador to the U.S. “Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!” Trump tweeted on Nov. 21. This forced an awkward response from a British government spokesman, who pointed out meekly: “There is no vacancy. We already have an excellent ambassador to the U.S.”
Farage, delighted by the breach of protocol, has done his best to stoke the resulting controversy while pretending to tamp it down. “It’s up to you if you think ‘Farage’ and ‘diplomat’ go together in the same sentence,” he said in Washington, with a sideways glance. “If you do, then that’s fine. I would say, traditionally, no. But then, it is 2016!” Eyeing his interlocutor to see if his point had registered, Farage decided it had not. “As far as my role is concerned, well, it’s quite bizarre, isn’t it?” he said. “Traditionally the Conservative Party had great links with the Republican Party. That was blown up completely by Trump getting the nomination. Most of the cabinet, and most of the senior apparatchiks in No. 10, were quite abusive about him. So now we have a new British government—they don’t know this guy and the rest of his gang. I do.”
What, then, would Farage’s role be in the Trump era? “What it’s always been,” he replied. “To be constructive and helpful in all things that I do.”
In Washington, Farage also made a big show of discretion, declining to name which politicians he’d met with unless they first felt moved to share news of the meeting themselves. Some did. “Oh, look,” his staffer, Matthew Richardson, said at one point. “Rand Paul’s just tweeted your selfie.” Thus freed from the demands of modesty, Farage confirmed that, yes, he had lobbied Paul on the idea of a bilateral agreement and gotten an encouraging reception. “I am unashamedly promoting the idea of completely resetting the U.S.-U.K. relationship,” he said. “It would be a great thing to do in terms of trade. I also see Britain as a massively important bridge between America and the rest of NATO, because NATO itself needs to have a conversation about its future in the modern world.” Paul spokesman Sergio Gor said, “Senator Rand Paul looks forward to supporting a robust post-EU trade deal with the United Kingdom. Nigel Farage will be an essential part in implementing a new treaty.”
Still, Farage demurred when the discussion turned to Trump. He wouldn’t share details of their Nov. 12 meeting, nor say if he’d be meeting with him again on this trip. “But who knows?” he added coyly. “We may make it up to New York.”
Two days after we spoke, on Dec. 3, he did. Farage joined Trump at the annual costume party thrown by hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, the co-chief executive officer of Renaissance Technologies, at his mansion on Long Island. This year’s theme was “villains and heroes,” and Farage dressed up as Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, scourge of France, with a vast bicorne hat. Afterward, at a hotel bar, his inhibitions melted away and he declared: “Nelson did it with cannons and we did it with votes, all right? You can report that!”
Of course, there really isn’t much doubt about what Farage is telling Trump and Bannon. Or Paul and the other senators he met with. As Farage put it over coffee, while flashing a lapel pin of interlocking U.S. and British flags, “I would love to hear noises coming out of America: ‘Let’s do a bilateral deal with the United Kingdom. It’ll be easy and quick.’ That sends a lot of signals, completely resets the relationship between our two countries. Good. It says to a bigger, wider world that ‘bloc-ism’ is over, and flexible bilateralism is the way forward. Again, good. What it also does is, hopefully, begin to embolden the British government into realizing that to be told by Brussels we’re not allowed to negotiate anything until we’ve left is barmy. This is not a prison we’re in! It’s supposed to be a political union. A positive message coming from Trump will strengthen our hand with Europe, because what you’ll start to hear are German car manufacturers and French Champagne producers saying to their governments and the EU, ‘Stop being so ridiculous about the United Kingdom. Get on with this [disunion], because otherwise they’re going to find a whole big new world out there.’ Good, good, and good.”
Caroline Freund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says a bilateral agreement could benefit both Farage and Trump. “From Farage’s standpoint,” she said, “this adds leverage to the U.K. in their divorce proceedings with the EU. But Trump would get a lot, too. There’s a cost to cutting off existing agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He could show he’s not completely anti-trade, while also negotiating the ‘better’ free-trade agreements he keeps promising—he’d have a lot of leverage here, because the U.K. really wants to balance out their break with Europe.”
But more than that, Trump would be projecting U.S. primacy and weakening multilateral organizations, which is just fine with Farage, who’s begun to worry about the U.K.’s Brexit resolve. “I suspect we will leave the Union,” he said. “But what terms we’ll leave on, I’m getting increasingly nervous about. Nervous that we’ll sell out. Nervous that we’ll get half a Brexit. If I’m wrong, and they do the job properly, then I will just quietly drift away. But if they make a mess of it, then maybe in two or three years’ time, I’ll have to get back and get involved again.”
With that, Farage stood up and announced that he needed a smoke. His retinue fell in line behind him and marched out into the December cold. As Farage lit a cigarette, the latest sign of his growing U.S. influence arrived, as most things do these days, via social media. “Guess what?” Richardson, his aide, exclaimed. “Chuck Grassley just tweeted out your picture!”
—With Zachary Mider