Nigel Farage hits the Trump trail

Nigel Farage speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

On Wednesday night in Jackson, Mississippi, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party told supporters of the Republican nominee for president that they could do in the United States what the campaign for Brexit had done in Britain. Nigel Farage meant this in the sense of victory for an anti-establishment underdog. British viewers might have been forgiven for thinking instead of the day when Farage posed in front of his newest campaign poster, depicting a long, curving column of refugees, nearly all dark-skinned, under the banner headline ‘BREAKING POINT’.

Two hours after Farage’s photoshoot that day, a member of parliament was shot and stabbed to death outside a library in West Yorkshire. The poster, which the murdered MP’s husband had shortly beforehand described as ‘vile’, was withdrawn; the rival campaigns took a weekend’s pause.

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The timing was bad luck, of course. There was no evidence to suggest that Farage’s conduct in the weeks prior to the murder had inspired it (although the killer’s cry in court of ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ gave some clue as to his inclinations). But the poster was widely seen as an emblem of a national debate that had slipped the bounds of civility. Had Britain voted to stay in the European Union, the conventional wisdom would have been that this was the moment when the Leave campaign’s relentless focus on immigration finally backfired.

Instead, as one of the referendum’s victors, Farage helped write its history. Flushed with vindication, he told a late-night campaign party that in Brexit, a revolution had been achieved ‘without a single bullet being fired’. This, he declared, was a victory ‘for ordinary people, a victory for decent people’.

Farage reprised that line in Jackson, and by the act of appearing next to Donald Trump, made clear who he considers decent. Immigration, Farage has previously said, has turned parts of Britain into something resembling ‘a foreign land’. Any ‘normal’ person, he thinks, ‘would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door’. Trump, it is evident by now, is cut from similar cloth.

Still, there was something incongruous about the joint appearance. For Farage, it meant abandoning the pretence of respectability, at least in British terms. Trump is wildly unpopular in the UK; were the president to be elected by Britons, according to a recent poll, Hillary Clintonwould win by 34 percentage points. At a parliamentary hearing on a petition to ban Trump from the country, British MPs were practically elbowing each other aside to get on camera to call him a bigot.

Farage is soon to retire from front-line politics, so need not be much concerned about his image among the British public at large. For Trump, however, this was evidence that his latest ’pivot’ away from his harshest positions will struggle to withstand his instinct for gleeful rabble-rousing. In Jackson, Trump spoke awkwardly, and (until recently) uncharacteristically, from a teleprompter. Earlier the same evening, an interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity had aired in which Trump appeared to back away from his promise to deport all 11 million of America’s undocumented immigrants.

In neither instance did Trump look fully comfortable. It is difficult to escape the feeling that his appearance with Farage would have been carried off more naturally by original-model Trump, the riffing provocateur. And the reaction of Trump’s supporters to his softening on immigration — including pro-deportation pundit Ann Coulter, who yesterday suffered the misfortune of publishing a book titled ‘In Trump We Trust’ only to have that trust immediately broken — suggests, too, that this new turn could be tricky to sustain. Like Farage, Trump is a man who seems to believe that his instincts have not failed him yet. How long will he manage to suppress them?

[This post originally appeared at Politics and Strategy, the Survival editors’ blog.]