A pinstripe-clad firebrand is whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, flaunting his business background in juxtaposition to the professional political class who’ve lost touch with their roots and have no grasp of the real world. In Britain we call this man Nigel Farage – in the United States he’s called Donald Trump.
At first glance the comparison looks superficial, but dig a little deeper and these two wildcards have more than an inexhaustible supply of bluster in common.
Like an evil version of Richard Branson, Donald Trump is a by-word for what happens when big business meets a cult of personality. Trump Tower stands like a physical manifestation of one man’s will to dominate business and lets people know that he likes to dominate business. Trump personifies unapologetic American capitalism in all its gut-punching gusto. Farage was a futures trader in metals, with nothing but boozy lunches interrupting the cut-and-thrust of commodities trading during the Thatcher era.
Both wear their business acumen as a source of pride, distinguishing them from the cookie-cutter humanities graduates parachuted into safe seats. Both men see business choked by red-tape, drawn up by legislators who’ve never had a real job and just don’t ‘get’ business like they do.
If any one issue has been the catalyst for the dynamic duo it’s surely immigration. It is about as divisive an issue as you can get in both the US and the UK, with advocates and opponents clogging up social media with favourable think tank reports and infographics. Hard as it may seem to British audiences, Trump makes UKIP look like hand-wringing Guardian readers with his calls for mass deportations and a flood of new border protection measures. Although Farage hasn’t gone to those lengths, he has astutely ensured immigration has gradually replaced Europe as the fulcrum of UKIP policy.
Both claim to be speaking for a silent minority who have been cowed into a silence by a political correctness Thought Police clamping down on debate. The ‘majority’ claim is more than a little dubious, but even an open borders advocate such as myself accepts that the for the best part of two decades even wanting to discuss immigration was enough to have branded a xenophobe or worse.
Linked to immigration, though still distinct, is the other wing of Trump and Farage’s pincer movement on the electorate – a desire to restore some sense of national greatness. This nebulous term is no less nebulous even when Trump wears a red baseball cap with the words written on, but both Farage and Trump pluck at the patriotic heart-strings in a way that their mainstream counterparts either refuse to do – or more often fail to do sincerely. For Farage, British greatness is, of course, dependent on withdrawal from the EU, but extends to a ‘restored’ armed forces (whatever that means) and strengthened links with the Commonwealth. This last point is particularly canny, for although it can be sold as sound trade and investment policy, it’s a dog whistle for people who rather miss the power and prestige of the British Empire. Trump’s vision of American greatness seems a hybrid of Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan, with bullish self-confidence married with the Big Stick. Farage’s reluctance to pick a fight with Putin would be more than offset by Trump’s desire to pick a fight with anybody.
Even outside of the realms of policy, Trump and Farage both seem to be impervious to the usual damage incurred by gaffs and slip-ups. Trump is regularly skewered by journalists asking even the most run of the mill questions but his stock continues to rise. For Farage, barely a week goes past without one of his councillors or members uttering something that would have been unsayable in 1950s, yet the bandwagon keeps on rolling. This is due in large part to the polarising nature of the two campaigns – their supporters probably quietly agree with the embarrassing comment or think the journalist in question is a ‘cultural Marxist’ pawn of the ‘mainstream media’. Equally, those who feign outrage at non-politically correct statements by UKIP members wouldn’t vote for Farage for them if you put a gun to their head.
As with all things, context is king. Both men have been able to tap into a particular niche opening up in political landscapes across the West and the Anglosphere in particular. For decades, the white working class vote in the UK was all but in the pocket of Labour, especially in the old industrial towns of Northern England. Labour relied on this guaranteed voting block when they started to court the middle class metropolitan set, knowing full well that their core voters wouldn’t vote Tory if you paid them, and that the Lib Dems were confined to the affluent suburbs. Cynical it may have been but it worked – until UKIP realised the Home Counties were a lost cause and looked north. Nigel Farage knows that Labour’s core voters are far more socially conservative than the parliamentary Labour Party and the distant London elite that it’s embedded with. Like Trump, Farage is reaping the benefits of working class frustration at being ignored and sneered at by a distant and cosseted political class whose concerns and priorities could not be more alien.
Both see themselves as maverick outsiders, not afraid to speak their mind, a champion of the little man despite their own very comfortable life styles. Both are derided as intellectually shallow, appealing to the lowest denominator and playing on people’s fears.
1980s throwbacks they may be, but with Jeremy Corbyn set to become leader of the Labour Party, they’re in good company.