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A British Right-Wing Firebrand Gets a Reality Check in America

Nigel Farage, enemy of the Eurozone, hope of British conservatives, learns that the fringe in America is quite a distance from the fringe across the Atlantic.

OXON HILL, Md.—Nigel Farage is trying to escape an interview, and succeeding. He’s zipping past the “radio row” of the Conservative Political Action Conference, saved by the combination of sensory overload and modest celebrity. The leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party is YouTube-famous here, at best. He is fine with that.

At home, Farage is a candidate for parliament and the face of a fast-growing splinter party, currently polling in third place. Prime Minister David Cameron, a member of the governing Conservatives, has derided UKIP as a mob of “loonies, fruitcakes, and closet racists.” Farage, grinning broadly and never apologizing, has been attacked for wanting to deny some health care to immigrants and for putting up candidates who do things like decrying aid to “Bongo-Bongo land.” Here, surrounded by reporters and American conservatives, he is at unusually high risk for an international incident.

Farage strides toward the Bloomberg Politics TV set, flanked on one side by spokesman Raheem Kassam, flanked on the other—here is the problem—by Jan Helfeld. Showing up at CPAC means risking an encounter with Helfeld, a minarchist who has been dubbed “the Socratic assassin” and (less kindly) “the libertarian Borat” for his meek-yet-torturous interviews about whether all government action is violence. Farage, sporting a bright UKIP-purple tie, moves swiftly. Helfeld keeps pointing a microphone, asking when he thinks the government “can use force.” Farage turns his neck just enough to blow off the interview.

“That’s going to be one of the main things I’ll be talking about,” says Farage.

“Is there someone I can speak to so I can interview you properly?” asks Helfeld.

“Give him your card,” says Farage, pointing to Kassam, in a tone that suggests the card will wind up in the sweet spot of a recycling bin.

Farage escapes, assesses the “odd man” who had been chasing him, and sits in front of a camera for few minutes. He is ready to be asked what he has in common with American right-wingers; after all, the conservative Daily Telegraph greeted the news that Farage would pop over the ocean for CPAC, the day before UKIP’s own conference, by calling it a “summit where plastic fetuses are handed out by anti-abortion activists.”

Asked how these Americans compared to UKIP’s activists, Farage smiles and demurs. “The big difference, of course, is that the Tea Party is campaigning for a change of policy within the Republican Party,” he says. His party was fighting outside the party system, breaking it in by-elections and races for the European Parliament.

“Should key decisions be made at the global level or the local level that we can change at elections?” says Farage. “That’s the big issue, that and the whole issue of liberty—you know, Magna Carta, the development of common law, things that Britain and America share.”

He won’t say much more than that. As he’ll tell other reporters at CPAC, he is a “guest” in the United States. He’s much happier, anyway, with a question about the president of Goldman Sachs saying that London will prosper only if the U.K. stays in the EU.

“Goldman Sachs’s role in all of this has been deplorable,” says Farage. “We see elected prime ministers being booted out in Greece and Italy and replaced by people who were former directors at Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs were the people that actually cooked the books for Greece to get into the EU in the first place. I admire Goldman Sachs’s ability to make money. I don’t always admire their intervention in policy.”

A few questions later, Farage gets to take the mic off and head back to his hotel room. The American trip, which has been covered back home as a strange or possibly vainglorious distraction, is supposed to connect UKIP with strategists who don’t know about it. “There are things like data mining where you’re much further advanced than we are,” says Farage. The conservative movement in America is stewing with ideas, compared to the U.K. “You’ve got think tanks; you’ve got policy development. Almost all of our commercial law is made in Brussels.”

He’ll talk more about that, but not from the scrums of CPAC. A young Fox News producer stops Farage and asks for a photo; after it’s taken, the politician and his handlers hot-foot it back to the hotel room, a Daily Telegraph photographer in pursuit. Even a producer for Breitbart News, which is sponsoring a party for Farage—advertised with “The British Are Coming” palm cards, illustrated with a snapshot of the UKIP leader smoking a cigar—can hardly slow him down. He’s off; there will be no snapshot of him next to a plastic fetus.

 

The relationship between American conservatives and their British counterparts is alternately adoring and complex. In 1977, when CPAC could be held in a small downtown hotel, American Spectator founder R. Emmett Tyrell called the United Kingdom’s social democratic government “the future that doesn’t work.” Two years later, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won the first of four consecutive elections. The state had advanced further in Britain than it had in America; she was able to privatize and dismantle more of it than even Ronald Reagan. At home, Thatcher was so polarizing that when she died, “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead!” surged up the singles charts to number two. In the United States, Thatcher remained a conservative icon. When she appeared at CPAC 2015, in a short posthumous video endorsing the Washington Times, the main ballroom rippled with applause.

But the Conservative Party that rules from London today is not Thatcher’s. It came back to power in 2010 in a coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, and took that as a mandate for economic austerity. Wherever else it could, it tacked to the center. It held an open vote that legalized gay marriage. It challenged any rumor that it would privatize the country’s national health service. Cameron even tweaked the party’s logo, replacing the iconic blue torch with a green tree. (The party’s 2006 local election slogan was “vote blue, go green.”) When Britain’s leading Conservatives have made news in America, it’s been for hiring Obama campaign veterans for their own races, or for criticizing the Republicans who made foreign policy trips to London.

The British right has not responded by re-conquering the Conservative Party. It has attacked from outside the gates, through Farage’s UKIP. A former commodities trader who worked at Michael Milken’s Drexel Burnham Lambert, he’d been a founding member of UKIP, and run five quixotic races for parliament on a platform of getting the U.K. out of the EU. In 1999, Farage won a seat in the European Parliament; he used that as a beachhead for attacking the whole European project.

He was good at it—and when the economic crisis hit, he got better. He made a point of sitting during an address by Prince Charles, because the heir to the throne should have been working to “give the people the promised referendum” on Europe. His mocking speeches frequently went viral.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gm9q8uabTs&feature=youtu.be

“You should perhaps be the pin-up boy of the Euroskeptic movement,” Farage said in a 2010 speech addressed to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. “If you rob people of their identity, if you rob them of their democracy, then all they’re left with is nationalism and violence. I can only hope that the Euro project is destroyed by the markets before that really happens.”

In 2014, Farage led his party to a triumph over the Conservatives in the EU elections, and two members of Parliament won elections as UKIP members. In early 2015, Cameron started promising a 2017 referendum on Europe, which did nothing to blunt Farage’s momentum—or his international reach.

Just as the American Tea Party pulled the center of politics to right, Farage and fellow Euroskeptics had altered the terms of debate about immigration and currency and trade. In a Jan. 14 Fox News appearance, Farage said that Europe was riddled with “no-go zones,” and that “wherever you look you see this blind eye being turned and you see the growth of ghettos where the police and all the normal agents of the law have withdrawn and that is where Sharia Law has come in.” Just five days later, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal spoke in London and warned of immigrants trying to colonize Europe.

Farage was growing his influence, on his terms, in ways that echoed across the Atlantic. The conservative press was falling in love with him. CPAC would be the honeymoon. In October 2014, shortly before one of UKIP’s latest by-election victory, the party hired Raheem Kassam away from Breitbart’s U.K. branch. Not long after that, Breitbart arranged a dinner in Farage’s honor for 50 or so conservatives in Washington. Matt Schlapp, the new American Conservative Union chairman, was among the worthies.

“Farage gave an amazing speech at the embassy,” recalls Breitbart News’s Steve Bannon. (“The embassy” is the nickname for the house Breitbart News rents in Washington.) “I had Schlapp on one side, [Senator Jeff] Sessions on one side, and Laura Ingraham on the other, and they were blown away. The dinner ends, and Schlapp asks, 'Is there any way you can come to CPAC?'”

There was, though it meant that Farage would have to hit the conference and fly home for his own party’s election launch event. He would make it work, if he avoided press and gaffes. It seems like he’ll pull that off at the 4 p.m. Breitbart meet-and-greet, held in a small room with a wine-stocked open bar. Before it begins, American students buzz about how exciting Farage had become for them.

“He’s one of the most honest and captivating politicians in the whole world,” says a recent Syracuse grad named Mike Demkiw. “I think the EU is an absolute failure—you have Brussels controlling immigration policy throughout Europe and that’s terrible.”

The leader and his entourage arrive right on time, and head for the bar. Flanked by Kassam, Farage hoists a glass of red wine and promises to give a speech later. “Have a drink first,” he tells the crowd. “How ‘bout that?”

His plan is stymied by a half-dozen British reporters, two of them pointing video cameras at him, blocking the anglophile college kids as they go.

“So, Nigel, support for the European Union’s as high as it’s ever been,” asks a reporter for the Economist.

“Sorry?” asks Farage.

“Support for the European Union’s as high as it’s ever been,” says the reporter.

“Is it? Who says?”

“Well, a YouGov poll.”

“If you ask the question—would you like a free trade deal, as opposed to membership in the European Union, there are massive majorities,” says Farage.

Kassam darts out of the room, looking for a way to “get the cameras out.” Meanwhile, as the students grow annoyed, they keep probing Farage for ways he differs with the CPAC right.

“Do you worry that you’ve associated Euro-skepticism with the far right?” asks a reporter.

“What do you think of habeas corpus and the Magna Carta and all of that?” asks Farage. “There are many who would say that’s classical liberal.”

Another reporter points a microphone at Farage. “Do you worry that a lot of people here won’t believe in things like evolution?”

Kassam returns to the scrum. “We’re not here to do interviews,” he says. “Come on. No more interviews. No more questions.”

The cameras move away; print reporters, to Farage’s measured irritation, stick around. The students really don’t want to edge him into a gaffe. One of them wants to know what he thinks of Syriza, the leftist party that triumphed over the establishment in Greece.

“I think the Greeks have given more at this stage than the Germans,” says Farage.

“I just think Syriza have raised expectations for Greeks, and the next round of this is in four months. You can’t raise the expectations of a whole country and then not deliver.” The EU’s response only works, says Farage, if “the Greeks become less Greek and the Germans become less German. It seems to me pretty unlikely; it isn’t going to work.”

The compliments swirl around Farage. One student calls him “the greatest politician in the world” (“I don’t know about that!”); another compliments him, not quite accurately, on “the most entertaining speech in the British parliament.” (If Farage wins a seat in Westminster, as he promises he will, he must resign from the European parliament.)

One man draws Farage into a discussion of Bretton Woods, and Farage starts to answer—“Well, we’ve gone so far down this road of fiat currencies.” Then the man produces a flier for a hearing on the CIA’s connection to the Kennedy assassination, and Farage finds a friendlier discussion about beer—“a fine yeast product.”

“I’ll just put that right here,” says Steven Stanbury, another UKIP candidate, helping Farage handle crowds.

Photograph: David Weigel/Bloomberg Politics
UKIP leader Nigel Farage talks to South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan at CPAC.

A less collegiate face comes out of the crowd; a handler introduces him to Farage as Representative Jeff Duncan, a Republican from South Carolina.

“I was joking the other day that I’m American UKIP,” says Duncan. “Thank you for being at CPAC.”

Farage stays with Duncan, as the reporters who are left snap photos of an ad hoc Anglosphere alliance. “We have a range of issues,” says Farage. “We fought for them and fought for them against massive opposition in the so-called liberal media.”

“We’ve done some of that in America, too,” says Duncan. “But I think the British people are with you.”

Farage wonders if Duncan can answer a question for him. “What about those aspirational voters, the Reagan Democrats?”

“They’re not there anymore,” says Duncan.

“Yes, but that phenomenon?” asks Farage.

Duncan painstakingly explains the colors on the American electoral map, and how “you used to see red, for Democrat” on the South, but how that’s been wiped away by voters. “They want government out of the way, less regulation,” he says. “That’s how we won the House and Senate.”

It isn’t quite the answer Farage wants. In America, a robust, nationalist conservative movement that would be “fringe” in most countries manages to dominate the country. It is standing off with a Democratic president over immigration policy; it already denied him a bipartisan reform bill. It resists international treaties and obligations where the European parties tend to waver and go along.

A few more grip-and-grabs later, Farage gets onto a stage emblazoned with Breitbart logos and gives a short version of the speech he’ll give to all of CPAC. He is a “guest,” he says, and won’t meddle, but UKIP is going to shock the world and break up the two-party system.

“We’ve done it by picking up votes across the spectrum, but in particular we’ve done it by picking up votes from people who run their own businesses, who get up early in the morning, who work hard, and who find themselves, in our modern corporatist economy—I say that, instead of our modern capitalist economy—looking for champions,” he says. “I have a feeling that if the Republican Party is going to win, it’s got to get those kind of men and women to vote for them.”

Farage steps off the dais and starts working the crowd again, wine in hand. Kassam, who’s clamed since the press started to leave, explains what he was trying to protect Farage from.

“Annoyance, mostly,” says Kassam. “We know we’re going to get stuff in the British media. He acts on the belief that he doesn’t owe anything to the media. They’ve never been nice to him, and that’s still the case.”

This theory will be tested in the main ballroom at CPAC. Farage was lucky insofar as he got a speaking slot on day one, before hangovers have set in. He’s unlucky with his timing—6:40 p.m., at the very end of the program. Organizers had done Farage a favor by not slotting him right after Sarah Palin, who gave a low-key speech, but who’s infamous abroad. As a buffer, they put on a panel discussion about economics that seemed to drag on like a director’s cut of a Fox News panel. By the time Farage gets his stage, the room is mostly empty, with 400 or so diehards left to listen.

Neither that—nor the very economical amount of red wine—causes him to flag. He updates the audience on the Greek crisis, and how Syriza “blinked.” He jokes: “I’m married to a girl from Germany, so nobody needs to tell me about the dangers of living in a German-dominated household.” He gives the elevator pitch on an immigration policy nobody in the room seems to oppose.

“All I’ve ever said is that Britain is actually a very small island, and we cannot go on absorbing a net inflow of up to a third of a million people,” says Farage. “What we need to be focused on is not another series of wars overseas, but the potential wars that we face in our own countries. I see an American president who doesn’t have the courage to address the central courage of what has gone wrong.”

He doesn’t say what that is, but the applause suggests that the crowd gets him instinctively. “We have all, in the west, mistakenly—and I think in a very cowardly manner—we have pursued a policy of multiculturalism. We have pursued a policy of encouraging division in our lives, when we should have pursued a policy of coming together.”

He wraps up after 20 tight minutes, and starts to leave the stage. A New York-born political consultant named Martin Scanlon runs up and hands him a piece of paper. Farage roars with laughter and walks out, minding his red-eye to London. A few young people who’d been at the Breitbart meet-and-greet ask Scanlon what he wrote.

“Mark Steyn wrote an article titled ‘Nigel vs. the Lunatic Mainstream,’” says Scanlon. “So I wrote, ‘Where’s the lunatic mainstream? At home, wanking themselves. Give ‘em hell.’”

The students wince. “Real classy,” one of them says. But Scanlon is resolute, talking about his love of a politician who “drinks and smokes and tells it like it is,” unlike almost anyone in America, with zero regard for how the press spins it.

And they do spin it. The next day, Sky News titles its CPAC story “The Cult of Farage: Hero’s Welcome in the U.S.” The Guardian goes with “Nigel Farage's anti-immigration chant strikes a chord with US Republicans.” The Daily Telegraph is the roughest: It runs with “Nigel Farage travels to Washington to address a near-empty room.” But by that time, Farage is at his own party’s conference back in England, reveling with the faithful, and rejoicing in a poll that answers one of the questions the stateside journalists kept asking him. He is up 12 points in his own race for parliament.