Naked Nigel, the God Kek and modern politics

Nigel Farage makes his farewell leader's speech to the UKIP conference Image copyright Getty Images

Nigel Farage raised a laugh to the last - going skinny dipping the evening after his valedictory speech at the UKIP conference. Gone, but he shouldn't be forgotten - there are valuable lessons from his career for those who want to understand the US presidential election.

First, look at that ability to defy convention, make jokes and generally look as though he is having huge fun.

In an age when most politicians are buttoned up, walking a tightrope set up by a media longing for a pratfall, where honesty is defined as a gaffe, and deviations from their norms are ruthlessly punished, there is considerable appeal in a politician who cheerily waltzes through the minefield whistling.

But if it was that simple every one would do it.

Something important has happened.

In the past few years, tweaking the nose of the establishment has become the prerogative of the right.

Once, it was the left and liberals who shocked and amused - but "epater la bourgeoisie" has now become the cry of the right who see the liberal left as the new establishment to poke fun at.

They are not conservatives, but a new right.

Donald Trump's whole campaign depends on publicly provoking outrage - and profiting in the polls as a result.

But behind him, supporting him, is another force that is far darker: the Alt Right.

What they believe is standard fare for the hard right in America - it is their style that is so startling.

They are anti-feminist, anti-Islam, anti-immigration, and anti what they would call "political correctness".

But above all, they reject an economic definition of conservatism, in favour of one based on culture and race.

They run the gamut from those who claim to be defending the rights of white Europeans to promote their values, to out-and-out Nazis.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Trump supporters are seen as being fiercely anti-establishment

Richard Spencer invented the term and told me: "The Alt Right stands for a markedly right-wing orientation, and for us, race matters, and race is the foundation for identity."

I asked him if he was racist.

"The word 'racist' is a kind of an insult," he said.

"It's like saying, 'Are you evil?'

"I think race informs culture, informs society, informs our world views."

What is really new is that this is not a bunch of elderly curmudgeons in the Deep South who have not got over Civil Rights.

They are young (mostly men) and exist on the internet through provocative memes and humour designed to offend, often posted on particular message boards.

They are usually well educated and love philosophising.

They have their own language:

  • "cuckservative" is a conservative too cowardly to fight the liberal establishment
  • "1488ers" are modern day Nazis (14 for the number of words in the white supremacist creed, 88 for HH - Heil Hitler)

There is Pepe the Frog - often now seen with Donald Trump hair - and the God Kek - who was born in a convoluted journey from LOL (laugh out loud) through World of Warcraft via the Korean language into a general sign of approval and thence into Egyptian mythology.

They are attempting to make the hard right cool.

Their support for Donald Trump has brought them from obscure corners of the internet to the mainstream.

They have put their ideology at the service of the rather ill-defined rage felt by Mr Trump's supporters towards immigrants, and more generally at those who are not white.

And they will not go away.

This is where we turn back to the ex-leader of UKIP.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Alt Right memes include one showing Donald Trump as Pepe the Frog

Before we go on, a disclaimer - I am not suggesting Nigel Farage would support, agree with, or identify with the Alt Right.

This is not just some weak attempt to avoid libel charges - I mean it.

I have known Mr Farage for years, and I genuinely do not believe he is racist.

I do not even think he is anti-European in a general sense.

He has, of course, appeared alongside Mr Trump and drawn some conclusions about the meaning of Brexit for the rest of the world.

But I am talking about the lessons his career teaches us about a certain type of right-wing populism.

On a recent programme, I called him "one of the UK's most successful politicians".

Some queried this on Twitter.

Of course, if you measure success by years spent in cabinet or Number 10, he is a spectacular failure, not even managing to become an MP.

But if you define political success as changing the world in the way you want it to change, he has done it in spades.

He and his party dragged an idea on the outer reaches of political acceptability into the mainstream, and then helped it become our current reality.

Remember, when we observed the epic battle between John Major and the Eurosceptics, almost none of them advocated leaving the European Union.

For years, those few who did want us out did not get much airtime or many column inches - they were seen as on the fringes of the margins.

Mr Farage found and nurtured a mood, tapped into a wellspring of discontent.

Mr Trump is doing exactly the same, and ideas once the preserve of the slightly barmy are now being expressed on primetime.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nigel Farage nurtured the Brexit cause for years before the EU referendum

Do articles like this help to legitimise the Alt Right? To an extent, yes. But there is a paradox - the more such ideas are swept under the carpet and ignored, the more potential, vague, supporters feel marginalised and angry.

The responsibility lies with politicians who are not willing to engage, and argue against.

Take Brexit and immigration - whether you are for or against, all sides might agree that Remainers did not lose the referendum in a few weeks of, admittedly pretty shoddy, campaigning, but in the 20 or so years when few of them talked positively about the European Union or tackled head on the idea of leaving.

Now, the same is not quite true about race in America.

But here the echo chamber is working at full blast.

Many white Americans just do not get the anger behind Black Lives Matter.

But the stubborn racism and the depth of the divide is America's dirty little secret.

Of course, Mr Trump has faced endless attacks for what he says.

But most amount to throwing up hands in outrage and labelling him vulgar or crazy.

There is a general disbelief that he has come out of the blue, a wild card, in the tradition of the Wild West huckster, rather than any other tradition.

But the support of the Alt Right pins him where he belongs, heir to political traditions both ancient and modern, disgust with mainstream politics, blaming the woes of the world on foreigners, a yearning for a community based on racial identity - we have seen it before.

There is a new politics of national identity alive in the world and it is not likely to go away, whoever wins the White House.