Nigel Farage on the Story Behind His Friendship with Trump
Like everything else about the Trump transition, the President-elect’s approach to dealing with foreign leaders and dignitaries has been completely off the wall. In the first nine days after the election, the Times reported, Donald Trump received thirty-two congratulatory calls from world leaders—none of them routed through the “Ops Center” of the U.S. State Department, which typically choreographs such conversations. The Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, got in second to congratulate Trump (after the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), having secured the President-elect’s cell-phone number from the golfer Greg Norman. Trump told the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, in the manner of someone you might sit next to on the plane, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, of Japan, dropped by Trump Tower for a ninety-minute audience without a single American diplomat on the scene.
But none of these interactions carried quite the same ring of two-thousand-sixteenness as Trump’s first meeting with a foreign politician after his election. On the evening of November 12th, a picture appeared on Twitter of Trump and Nigel Farage, the fifty-two-year-old British right-wing populist and Brexit campaigner, standing in front of the golden door of Trump’s apartment, grinning like schoolboys. “We were both roaring with laughter,” Farage told me last week, in London. “We were two people who had been through quite an ordeal. But suddenly, you know, we’d won.”
Farage, a former metals trader in the City of London, has led the anti-European Union U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, on and off since 2006. Back then, David Cameron, as leader of the Conservatives, described UKIP members as “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists.” An arch-nostalgist dressed in a double-breasted suit, who is most often pictured holding a pint of English beer in a crowded pub, Farage thrived on the disdain. He is a disarming figure, part nationalist, part jester. “The way that you get something to stick in people’s minds is to constantly break up the serious stuff with light stuff,” he told me. He declared war “on the entire political establishment.”
UKIP has never come close to political power in Britain. In the 2015 general election, it won 12.6 per cent of the vote and a single seat in the House of Commons. But Farage’s singular, destabilizing contribution to British politics has been to connect a popular anxiety about immigration with a concern over the remote bureaucracy of the E.U. Arriving late for a meeting in Wales in 2014, he blamed “open-door immigration” for the traffic. In a televised election debate in 2015, Farage spoke of foreigners with H.I.V. coming to Britain to game the National Health Service. Although his personal popularity is often questioned, sometimes by his own party—Farage has tried and failed to become an M.P. seven times—his fixations were critical to the Brexit vote, on June 23rd. Farage himself was frozen out of the official “Vote Leave” campaign, led by mostly renegade Conservative M.P.s, such as Boris Johnson, but that did not stop him from running his own, more populist and anti-migrant one, or from claiming credit for the victory. “You all laughed at me,” Farage told the European Parliament, where he has served as a member for the past seventeen years. “Well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now.”
The arc that ends with the interim leader of Britain’s fourth-largest political party, a boob and a roisterer, becoming the first foreign politician to meet with President-elect Trump began late at night at the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland, in July. Farage, who is rumored to be eying a career on the American right-wing lecture circuit, was in town, working on his “Mr. Brexit” brand. His wingman was Andy Wigmore (known as Wiggy), the spokesman and fixer for Arron Banks, an insurance entrepreneur from Bristol who gave around seven million pounds, or eight and a half million dollars, to UKIP and to Farage’s Brexit campaign. Over drinks, Wigmore and Farage struck up a friendship with the delegation from Mississippi, whose Republican governor, Phil Bryant, turned out to be a Farage fan. “They say, ‘Oh, Governor Phil Bryant just loves you, Nigel! He watches all your videos,’ ” Farage recalled. The delegates invited Farage to visit later in the summer. “The idea of a trip to Mississippi? Rather. Absolutely,” he said.
About a week before he flew to Mississippi, Farage learned that his trip was going to coincide with a Trump visit to the state, on August 25th. Also, Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, was by that point in charge of the campaign. Bannon and Farage have been close for years. “I have got a very, very high regard for that man’s brain,” Farage told me. Bannon is a student of right-wing nationalist movements in Europe, and in the summer of 2012, shortly after his appointment at Breitbart, he’d invited Farage to spend several days in New York and Washington, where the UKIP leader was introduced to, among others, the staff of Jeff Sessions, the nativist Alabama senator who is Trump’s pick to be the next Attorney General.
In 2014, Breitbart opened an office in London. Its editor, Raheem Kassam, went to work as Farage’s chief of staff for almost a year. (This autumn, Kassam briefly ran to succeed Farage as party leader under the slogan “Make UKIP Great Again.”) Farage began writing a column for Breitbart—with headlines such as “UK Universities Hotbeds of EU Propaganda”—and some fellow UKIP officials became alarmed by the influence of the organization at the top of the party. One described to me the links between Farage, Kassam, and Breitbart as “a completely parallel structure” within UKIP. When I asked Farage whether he shared Bannon’s martial conception of politics—Trump’s chief strategist has said that “politics is war”—he made a joking reference to the two armies of the English Civil War, placing himself on the dashing side. “I am more cavalier; he is more roundhead,” Farage said. But he did not attempt to disguise his regard for the alt-right forum. “I speak to Breitbart every day,” he said.
In Jackson, Governor Bryant suggested that he speak at a fund-raising dinner for Trump, Farage said, and the Brexit campaigner and the Republican candidate met beforehand, at a cocktail reception for around sixty donors at the city’s convention complex. “Donald says a few words,” Farage recalled. “And he says, ‘Where’s that? Where’s Nigel? Where’s the Brexit guy?’ So I go up. He gives me a big hug, and he says, ‘This guy is smart. This guy is smart. We’ve got to do what he does.’ ” Publicly, at least, Farage had expressed reservations about Trump’s candidacy until this moment, but in Jackson any doubts disappeared. “I was very, very flattered, actually, by the way he treated me,” Farage said. The double act went down well at the dinner, and Farage ended up speaking at a Trump rally at the Mississippi Coliseum that evening as well. At first, he was taken aback by the razzmatazz and the vehemence, the cries of “Lock her up.” “Elements of that I thought . . .” Farage gave a careful sigh. “This is extraordinary.” But once he was onstage he loved it.
Farage was already due in the U.S. the week his new friend was elected the forty-fifth President. He had been booked for months to address a “Restoration Weekend,” in Palm Beach, Florida, in the days after the election. The event was organized by David Horowitz, a right-wing activist and the author of the article, now notorious, “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” on Breitbart News. “They thought they were probably going to lose, if we are being honest about it,” Farage told me. Instead, the event became a celebration of the political earthquakes of 2016. Farage demanded that a bust of Winston Churchill be returned to the Oval Office, following its removal by President Obama, which was interpreted as a slight. And he hailed the parallels between Brexit and Trump’s election. “I am thrilled to have been part of this,” he said.
While Farage was in Palm Beach, Wigmore called. Since the summer, Wiggy, who holds a diplomatic position at the Belizean Embassy in London, had been in charge of nurturing the relationship with Trump’s team. (Wigmore, who has described himself as the “worst head of communications in the world,” is a figure of some fun in the UKIP office. “You’ve got to have a whipping boy in life,” Farage told me.) With Trump victorious, Wigmore, Banks, and Kassam were getting on a plane to New York. Wigmore told Farage to meet them there. Farage arrived on November 11th. “We all went out to Smith & Wollensky and did our stuff, you know,” he said. Farage made an appointment to see Bannon in Trump Tower at two o’clock the following day. He held out hope for a phone call with Trump, maybe even a quick hello.
Farage and the gang arrived at Trump Tower just as the first protesters were closing in. They were shown up to the campaign offices. The phones were ringing, and there was a thrum of activity, but Farage was struck by how few people there were. It reminded him of his own threadbare, insurgent campaigns. Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, walked by. Farage and Bannon caught up. “Then we sort of spent some time with Kellyanne”—Conway, Trump’s campaign manager—“which was good,” he said. In the street below, the ranks of protesters thickened and it became hard to leave the building. “We are milling around, but it’s fine,” Farage said. “The funniest bit was going out on the balcony for a smoke and being told by the Secret Service we could be targets for snipers.”
Suddenly, Trump had a window. Conway took the Brexit contingent up to the triplex, on the fifty-eighth floor. Farage had read about the apartment before —“the Louis XIV furniture and the gold”— where they spent the next hour with the President-elect. Farage declined to tell me what they discussed. (The revelation that Trump “has a bugbear” about Scottish wind farms was Wigmore’s. “He says, ‘When I look out of my window and I see these windmills, it offends me,’ ” Wiggy told the BBC).
Instead, Farage preferred to speak about what he believes that he and Trump have in common, which is their identity as underdogs. “Trump and I have probably been the most reviled people by the liberal media in the world,” he told me. “The fact that he spent the amount of time with us that he did was really interesting.” When Farage, who has expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria, talks about the President-elect, he conjures both alpha male and victim. Trump in the second Presidential debate was “a silverback gorilla”: “he is the leader of the pack, he is the leader of the tribe.” But he is vulnerable, too. “I am not a threat to him, am I?” Farage said. “Everyone who comes into that room is looking for something, aren’t they? I am not threatening in any way at all. I think he sees somebody who has been through similar kinds of battles, and he is just happy to talk to me.”
They parted fondly at the shiny door. “I said, ‘No doubt at some point we will bump into each other again,’ ” Farage said. It was Wigmore, who likes to collect pictures of famous people, who took the photograph of the pair; Farage posted it. “Within about ten minutes we had Chinese news agencies we had never heard of asking to use it,” a UKIP spokesman said. The image caused chaos in London. For British conservatives, the “special relationship” has felt frayed for some time. Both May, as Home Secretary, and Johnson, as the mayor of London, criticized Trump during the campaign and have since been falling over themselves to make amends. In the collapsing currency of politics at the end of 2016, Farage’s access to Bannon and Trump is gold. “Crikey,” he wondered, as he took the elevator down to the street. “What is everyone going to think?”
Farage Tower is a set of barely furnished offices in an old townhouse, above a realtor’s named Tuckerman’s, at 40 Great Smith Street, not far from the Houses of Parliament. There is no name above the bell or sign to advertise his presence. At around eleven o’clock last Thursday morning, a camera crew from Greek television was making its way out. Farage was wearing a gray suit. He opened the window to let in some air. He hadn’t had much sleep in the past two days. On November 22nd, he was in Strasbourg when his phone rang at 3 A.M. It was Kassam. Trump had just tweeted, “Many people would like to see @Nigel_Farage represent Great Britain as their Ambassador to the United States. He would do a great job!” The idea should have been a non-starter—British governments appoint their own ambassadors, and the current office-holder, Sir Kim Darroch, has only held the post since January—but Johnson, who is now Foreign Secretary, was forced to spell out that there was no vacancy for the position.
Farage was gleeful at all the trouble coming out of Trump Tower. “Everything’s changed,” he told me. “My entire political career, I have been told all the way through, ‘No, No, No. That is not how you do it. You’re breaking all the rules.’ It is pretty clear from that tweet that is how Trump is going to do things. He is going to do them his way.” Farage’s cell phone rang. It was Banks. The previous night, he and the billionaire twins David and Frederick Barclay, who own the Daily Telegraph, had thrown a party for Farage at the Ritz Hotel to celebrate Brexit. With Trump’s tweet in mind, he had been presented with a stacked tray of Ferrero Rocher chocolates—a reference to a famous British TV ad from the nineteen-nineties called “The Ambassador’s Reception.” Farage had stayed out late, and ended up in Zafferano, a bar in Belgravia. “It was a proper drink,” he told Banks.
Then Wigmore walked in, a dapper, busy figure in a waxed rain jacket. “Hello, chaps,” he said. Farage said we had been talking about him. “Oh, what have I done?” Wiggy said, putting down a plastic bag. At the party, Wigmore had bought some original cartoons of Farage from Christian Adams, a cartoonist at the Telegraph. He pulled them out of a large brown envelope. One showed Farage grinning terribly and clutching a packet of “American Embassy” cigarettes. “Fucking awesome,” Wigmore said. Farage chuckled. “I’m like Picasso,” he said. “When I am dead, I’m going to be worth a fortune.”
The party at the Ritz had taken place a few hours after the Autumn Statement, an annual update on Britain’s finances in the House of Commons. Although May is committed to carrying out Brexit, the independent Office of Budget Responsibility had revealed that the nation is likely to lose 2.4 percentage points of G.D.P. growth by 2021 as a result, and will need to borrow an extra fifty-nine billion pounds in that time. The government has put on hold its plan, pursued since 2010, to eliminate the fiscal deficit.
The government has extended its austerity program to 2021. Farage scoffed at the figures. “The same negative analysis,” he said. “It is absolute nonsense.” During the summer, Farage promised to give May’s government time and space to tackle the monumental task of extricating Britain from the E.U., but he has started to agitate from the sidelines again. “I am beginning to think the wrong people are in charge,” he said. Farage resigned as UKIP leader after the referendum, but was forced to return as interim leader in October. He formally gave up the office this week, but he told me it wouldn’t make much of a difference to what he was able to achieve now. “There are no norms. They have gone,” Farage said. “I love it.”