Trump baffles Mississippi with 'Brexit' rallying cry

Trump's attempt to use a British political issue as a lynchpin for his "America First" message is already proving to be a tricky thing.
August 25, 2016, 4:58pm
European Parliament Nigel Farage speaks during a Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S., August 24, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

To hear Donald Trump's new campaign CEO Steve Bannon tell it, the foreign guest of honor at Wednesday night's rally here in the heart of Ole Miss territory was already approaching Archie Manning-like local fame, even before he took the stage.

"Nigel Farage is better known by this crowd in Jackson than every member of the Senate or the House," Bannon told Vice News. "He is a folk hero … it's the little guy standing up to the globalist elites."


Under Bannon's tutelage, Trump is recrafting his campaign as the natural successor to the populist uprising that Farage — the former leader of the UK Independence Party — led in pushing through the withdrawal of Great Britain from the European Union, the so-called "Brexit."

By inviting Farage to appear on stage with him, the self-described "Mr. Brexit" presented himself as a partner to the British rabble-rouser. But while the anti-elites mantras of the two men may be in synch, Trump's attempt to use a British political issue as a lynchpin for his "America First" message is already proving to be a tricky thing.

In introducing Farage, Trump said that the November election offered an opportunity to "re-declare" American independence," just as Britain had reestablished its own sovereignty by voting to leave the E.U. in June. And for his own part, Farage offered no doubt about where his own allegiances stood in the U.S. election, even as he stopped just short of formally endorsing Trump.

"If I was an American citizen, I wouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton if you paid me," Farage told the crowd of thousands who'd gathered inside the Mississippi Coliseum. "In fact, I wouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton if she paid me."

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The pro-Trump audience responded boisterously to that line, as they tend to do whenever the former secretary of state's name is mentioned in a negative light. But conversations with staunch Trump supporters just before Farage took the stage suggested that the Republican nominee has a long way to go to make the Brexit issue resonate as a populist rallying cry in the United States.

Dressed in an American flag shirt, Linda Roby from Clinton, Mississippi, said that she liked Trump because he's "one of us" and "not one of these snooty hooties." Asked about Trump's position on Brexit, however, Roby said that she wasn't very familiar with how it might affect her own life.


"He said it came from people from what other place?" she asked. "England. Right, England." To be fair, Trump himself appeared to be unclear on "Brexit" when he was asked about his position on it back in May.

Decked out in similarly patriotic colors, Michelle Upton from Forest, Mississippi, and Sheila Wall ("like 'The Wall'" on the Mexican border) from nearby Carthage had come to see Trump for a second time after they both caught a glimpse of the Republican candidate during a previous visit to the state in March.

Each woman had plenty to say about Trump's stance on repealing Obamacare and his ability to turn around their economy, but neither of them had an opinion to offer when asked about his views on Brexit.

"I don't know," Wall said, noting that she seemed to recall her boss mentioning something about it earlier in the day. "I can't intelligently talk about that."

Mandy Holeman drove 115 miles from her home in the rural Mississippi Delta town of Doddsville (population 94 people). With her ex-husband dead of a drug overdose and her son having been in rehab, Holeman said that she was more interested in hearing Trump speak directly about the problems at home than she was in hearing him try to make a connection with what's happening across the Atlantic.

"I would probably rather hear him talk about other issues that are very important to our nation, such as health care, creating jobs, getting people off of welfare and food stamps," she said.


Asked whether they knew who Nigel Farage was, Upton, Wall and Holeman each shook their heads. "Up in the Delta there was no publicity about it," Holeman said.

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That lack of awareness is the first thing that Trump must try to change if he wants the Brexit issue to resonate. In his remarks on Wednesday night, delivered via teleprompter, the Republican nominee sought to do just that, telling the crowd, "The issues we face are similar to the ones Britain faced."

In further drawing out the populist instincts of blue-collar voters -- an endeavor that he believes is the key to a narrow Trump victory in November -- Bannon has in mind people like Mike Merritt, who cut a striking figure with his long gray beard and camouflage hat.

A military veteran and avid Trump supporter who'd driven hours from the Gulf Coast to attend the rally, Merritt balked when asked what Trump meant when he referred to himself as "Mr. Brexit,"

"I hadn't heard that one, and quite honestly, I wouldn't know what it would mean," he said. "I support the idea of Great Britain getting out of the EU. It's just another socialistic, communistic type organization as far as I'm concerned. But what he means by that, I really have no idea."

After giving it some more thought, Merritt seemed to put the pieces together in a way that Bannon and Trump are hoping more voters who reside far from the halls of power in Washington and London will follow suit.

"Southerners are all about sovereignty," he said. "We've had ours taken away from us in the past, so we know what it feels like it."