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The Republican Party should get a glimpse of its future in Britain’s populist corner

First came Brexit, then came Trump – and now it’s happening again.

In June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union.

Now Brexit mastermind Nigel Farage has returned to the forefront of British politics.

He is running in the British general election next month, but Farage’s real aim is not to win a seat in parliament, but to replace the Conservative Party with a new populist force of his own creation.

The worse the Conservatives do on July 4, the fateful date set by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for the election, the more power Farage will gain.

That is true regardless of whether he has the upper hand in his own race.

It is even true if his party, Reform UK, wins no seats at all.

What Farage wants to prove is simply that the Conservatives cannot win without his problems.

Donald Trump is a poll success in a way that Farage is not.

But Farage is a brilliant long-term planner, and what he does in Britain has consequences for the Republican Party here.

He gives us a glimpse into what the future of the Republican Party looks like after Trump – as Farage proves that any right-wing party that is not also a populist party is doomed in the 21st century.

Before Farage decided to stand as a candidate, Rishi Sunak’s parliamentary majority was almost certainly at risk of extinction.

Polls showed Labor winning a huge, historic victory.

But the Conservatives had reason to think that the pain imposed by Farage and Brexit was finally behind them.

From the 1990s until the eventual implementation of Brexit under Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Conservatives were bitterly divided over the EU.

Farage’s previous vehicle, the UK Independence Party, was intended to push the Conservatives to the right in Europe by threatening to split their electoral coalition.

The strategy worked: to keep his party together, David Cameron, a conservative prime minister who favored remaining in the EU, had to plan a popular referendum on Brexit, which he lost.

For another three years, the Conservatives struggled to find a leader who would push through Brexit.

When Johnson promised this, the party’s Farage problem disappeared and the Conservatives won a landslide victory in the 2019 general election.

Still, COVID controversies ended Johnson’s term prematurely.

The Conservatives then tried to go back to the future, choosing the closest thing to a free market Margaret Thatcher, Liz Truss, as the next leader and Prime Minister.

Truss’s premiership lasted barely a month; she simply could not get enough support from her own party’s MPs to stay in office.

That’s how the Conservatives ended up with Sunak, a man defined not by a vision that inspired colleagues or voters, but by an absence of overtly divisive qualities.

Because he stands for little, Sunak’s fall would not mean much – in the absence of Farage.

But now that Farage is back, there is once again a divisive issue that the Conservatives cannot ignore: immigration.

Brexit was just the beginning.

Farage and Reform UK will use the same playbook to push British policy on immigration to the right.

A surprise YouGov poll last week showed Reform UK beating the Conservatives by 19% to 18%, with Labor far ahead on 37%.

Pundits don’t expect Reform to perform all that well in the general election, but they don’t need to: Farage just needs to make his issue indispensable to any right-wing party hoping to win.

He might never become prime minister or even a member of parliament.

But if he keeps up the pressure, Farage will push the Conservatives to appoint leaders who look like him – the only kind who can attract his voters.

Old guard Republicans in the US want to get past Trump and Trumpism as much as British Conservatives wanted to get past Farage and Brexit.

But immigration is the defining issue of our time on both sides of the Atlantic, not just in America and Britain but also on the European continent, as last week’s EU elections demonstrate.

Immigration restrictions have a popular constituency across the Western world, and voters are impatient with old center-right parties that are reluctant to take up the cause.

Trump and Farage both believed this, and while no one else can be Donald Trump, Farage’s strategy is one that other politicians, including post-Trump Republicans, can use.

At this point, the Farage strategy does not require a new party; the same pressure can be exerted on the Republican establishment through primaries.

Whether or not populist Republicans win a general election, simply by making it impossible for other Republicans to win without them, they gain influence in the way Farage has.

The flip side is also true: Populists may not win without immigration-loving, business-oriented Republican or Conservative voters – but populists ultimately care more about the issue than the other side.

Which London financier is willing to jeopardize lower taxes for the sake of higher immigration?

Brexit and Trump’s election were eight years ago. But 2016 is still the present and the future.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review and editor-in-chief of The American Conservative.

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