LONDON — The demonstrators let out a collective scream: “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Anger crackled in the air as the protesters — some in red MAGA caps or dressed in flag-themed clothing — grew incensed at a small group of liberal counterprotesters who were chanting “racist scum” at them from behind a metal barricade.
“They’re the fascists!” a woman yelled back at the liberals, as her fellow demonstrators nodded approvingly.
The scene had all the trappings of a Donald Trump rally: the virulent partisan collision, the bitter complaints about “fake news,” the fear that the country’s white population is under threat from immigrants, the sprinkling of Trump-themed hats and garb.
But the hundreds of people gathered were English, not American, and they had traveled — many for hours by bus — not to see Trump but to cheer on a prominent nationalist and anti-Islam activist named Tommy Robinson, whose rise to right-wing stardom has been bolstered by official intervention by a Trump administration diplomat and unofficial support from former Trump aide Steve Bannon and Donald Trump Jr. And the predominantly white British citizens who form Robinson’s base of support love the American president for taking their side.
“I’m his biggest fan,” said Dave Sumner, a protester at the rally wearing a rubber Trump mask and dark suit. “I love Trump. He’s amazing. He’s a role model.”
Sumner and the other Trump-loving protesters rallying in London are part of a larger nationalistic movement in Europe and around the world that was born of domestic causes and predates Trump, but is being actively stoked by Bannon and others. Think of it as the global wing of Trump’s fervent base, an amplification and extension of his divisive but galvanizing message. Wherever it has risen up, it has stirred anxiety and a largely ineffectual reaction from the political establishment, much as with Trump in the United States.
Post-Brexit Britain contains a strain of nationalistic fervor that is especially connected to Trump because of a unique, trans-Atlantic feedback loop between the right wings of both countries. US pundits and politicians have poured moral and financial support into their cause, and Trump has, in his own way, helped make their case, warning in a recent visit to Britain that Europe is “losing [its] culture” because of immigration.
British nationalists like Sumner have long been dismissed as lower-class rabble by the UK establishment and shut out from the party system entirely. But they now find their complaints about Muslims and immigrants validated across the pond, where the occupant of the Oval Office has regularly and enthusiastically vilified both groups. The Trump example has been enormously catalyzing for them. And the British party that pushed for Brexit, UKIP, has begun offering itself as a political home to the movement, raising fears in the country that the until-now fractured and weak far right could become a political force.
Spending time with Sumner and others in his movement helps explain why Trump’s allies see Europe as fertile ground for exporting Trump-style nationalism and identity politics, as nationalists abroad see themselves as part of a global movement attempting to safeguard Western culture from immigrants.
“I think Trump getting into power shows that we are the majority,” Sumner said. “And just believing that gives you a lot of hope.”
* * * * * *
Sumner is the first to admit he got a little too obsessed with Donald Trump during the 2016 election. During the day, he put on a hard hat and worked as a laborer on a building site in his hometown of Sheffield. But the second he got home, the 37-year-old fired up YouTube on his laptop. It was time for his favorite activity in the world: Watching Trump talk.
“When it came to Donald Trump, that’s all I did,” he said. “It became my life.”
YouTube’s “recommended” algorithm served up constant Trump content once it recognized that was his interest, feeding his obsession.
“Every time you put YouTube on, there’s your recommended: Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump,” he said. “So that’s what I did.”
Debates. Speeches. Interviews. Evening bled into night, which sometimes became early morning. Consumed by the long-shot candidate, Sumner spent six hours a day, sometimes more, basking in the glow of his screen.
Meanwhile, his mother, whom he lives with in the outskirts of Sheffield, became concerned. Most of his family members and friends are fairly apolitical and weren’t following the US elections closely from Sheffield, a steel manufacturing city more than three hours north of London that is home to a large university. Sumner’s mom’s main interest is her Jack the Ripper-themed book club, and until recently, Sumner himself was more interested in his amateur rapping hobby than politics. People began to suggest to him that he was taking the obsession too far. He even began screening dates on Tinder, asking his matches what they thought about Trump before deciding whether to go out with them.
“Me mum thought I was mentally ill,” Sumner joked.
But the US elections filled his life with a sense of purpose, as if by watching videos several hours a day he was affecting history. “It’s not something you can just stop and put down,” he said. “It’s important.”
On election night, Sumner couldn’t keep his eyes open late enough to hear the final call, falling asleep before the Midwest pivoted in the direction of his hero, changing the course of history. Sumner was shocked when he woke up on Nov. 9 to the news that Trump had been elected president of the United States.
“It was the best day of my life when I found out he won,” he said. “Absolutely fantastic.”
But his rapture at Trump’s victory didn’t rid Sumner of the anger he felt about his own country and life circumstances, an anger he focused on the UK’s Muslim community. If anything, it intensified it. Sumner found himself filled with rage on May 22, 2017, when Salman Abedi set off a bomb at a concert in the northern city of Manchester, where the son of Libyan refugees was born and raised, killing 22 people and himself in an ISIS-inspired terror attack. Sumner also continued to believe that the UK government was not adequately addressing a spate of sex abuse scandals in northern cities featuring Muslim defendants. He also didn’t like that more Muslim people lived on his block than before, and worried that Muslim people would, as he put it, “outbreed” people like him — a strain of the
so-called white genocide theory pushed by white nationalists. He distrusts government statistics that show the Muslim population in the UK is 7 percent, and 6 percent in Sheffield as of 2011.
He grew so angry that he worried he would do something “stupid” and hurt someone, not an idle threat from a person who, 10 years earlier, was sentenced to five years in prison for punching a man who then fell and was left brain-dead. His increasingly dark Facebook rants on Islam and other topics were met with one or two likes, usually from a blood relative. He quit his job, broke up with his girlfriend, and sank into a depression.
That’s when his alter ego — Davey Trump — was born.
Last June, Sheffield’s new mayor announced he was banning Trump from the city during his state visit to Britain, a rebuke for the president’s position on Muslims and immigrants. An incensed Sumner purchased a Trump mask for 45 pounds on EBay, and when it arrived, stood outside Sheffield City Hall dressed as the president with a sign declaring: “Trump is welcome in Sheff.”
This, it turns out, was the beginning of his new identity. A few days later, he protested a large demonstration against Trump in the town square, videoing himself as he yelled at the hundreds of anti-Trump demonstrators: “Your message is poison!” He sent the video to as many pro-Trump Facebook groups around the world as he could, and eventually began to attract the likes and followers he had so sorely been missing. In a uniquely 21st-century scenario, a purely symbolic protest of a purely symbolic protest attracted lots of eyeballs — and outrage — online.
“It felt great that all this I felt inside, other people agree as well,” he said. “It’s like a pat on the back, all these positive messages.”
Sensing that Trump was the unifying force for people who shared his own disdain for liberals and Islam, Sumner began wearing the mask more and more to protest small goings on around his town, and made a separate Facebook page for his alter ego. In his profile photo, he’s wearing the mask and holding an air gun.
“Many people know me now as Davey Trump,” he said proudly.
One man in particular acts as a magnet and catalyst for Sumner and like-minded people, and rallies on this man’s behalf have brought them out of their online hideaways and into real life. He is Tommy Robinson, a British anti-Islam activist who founded a group that organized street protests against Islam. Robinson has become the focal point for a resurgence of nationalism and anti-Islam sentiment in Britain, drawing thousands of fans to London over the summer in protests on his behalf.
* * * * * *
When fans of the Luton Town “Hatters” chant for their team, the howling sound carries over the stadium’s walls and into the largely Muslim neighborhood that surrounds it. You can hear the football chants from the halal butcher stall, from the travel agency that organizes religious pilgrimages to holy sites, and from the Luton Central Mosque.
When games let out, the Hatters’ mostly white fans stream out of the area as quickly as possible, seeking out pubs half a mile away, to commiserate or celebrate with each other.
Bury Park, as the neighborhood is called, has become the very center of the debate around immigration in England in recent years, as right-wing groups have occasionally descended upon the working-class neighborhood in “Christian patrols” to gawk at and harangue the residents. Bury Park has, in fact, had issues with extremism, fueling the right-wing antagonism. Radicalized Luton residents have left Britain to join ISIS in the past, and Scotland Yard watches the inhabitants closely for signs of Islamic extremism.
The reaction to that has been harsh. One Hatters chant carries a particularly pointed meaning to the inhabitants of Bury Park when it echoes beyond the stadium. Ohhhh Tommy, Tommy! Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy Robinson. The chant in his support is so controversial that the team’s owner has begged fans not to yell it anymore.
That’s because Robinson — whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — has grown from an overzealous Hatters’ fan in the early 2000s to the country’s leading voice against Muslim immigrants.
Just two years ago, Robinson would have had a tough time drawing thousands of people like Sumner to London. But over the past year the 35-year-old has been transformed from an obscure regional fringe player into a symbol of free speech and resistance to the international far right, thanks in part to powerful supporters in the United States, including Bannon and Trump’s eldest son, Donald.
Robinson founded the English Defense League in 2009, a far-right group, in his hometown of Luton. He was involved there with a group of rowdy and sometimes violent fans of the Hatters, the soccer team named after the town’s original hat-making industry.
Luton’s hatting days are long past, and Robinson grew up in a place that was rapidly changing economically and demographically. The city’s white population fell from 72 percent to 55 percent from 2001 to 2011, as thousands of white people left and new nonwhite residents moved into the commuter town an hour north of London. The Vauxhall car factory, the town’s main employer, closed in the early 2000s. Now the company’s van factory employs fewer than 1,000 people, a steep decline from its heyday.
Robinson grew up resenting the new demographics of Luton. In his early 20s, he briefly belonged to the British National Party, a racist fringe group whose leaders have condemned inter-marriage between people of different races and support an end to all nonwhite immigration. He left the party and has since disavowed racism.
But it was at the stadium in Bury Park where he emerged as a leader and first found followers. Robinson’s early supporters followed him from Hatters’ games into the streets, at first covering their faces with ski masks while railing against Islam in rallies that often descended into violence. Early EDL rallies blended into and were sometimes indistinguishable from football hooliganism, a persistent problem in Britain until recent police crackdowns. Robinson was banned from attending Hatters games for three years after egging on Luton fans to brawl with the away team’s fans outside the stadium in 2011. He was chanting, “EDL till I die!”
As EDL chief, Robinson threatened to aim “the full force” of the organization at all British Muslims in retaliation for any Islamic terror attacks. He joked that a Muslim woman’s pregnancy should be called a “time bomb.” Meanwhile, his rap sheet grew: assault, fraud, using a false passport, and drugs. The UK’s former top counter-terror law enforcement officer, Mark Rowley, compared Robinson to those who preach Islamic extremism, saying they both feed off each other’s extreme rhetoric to further divide their communities.
In 2013, Robinson quit the EDL, and apologized for some of his past rhetoric. He began styling himself as a journalist and distancing himself from his football hooligan roots. More recently, he has focused on bringing attention to sexual abuse trials featuring Muslim defendants after an independent report in 2014 found that 1,400 girls and women had been abused over 15 years in the town of Rotherham by a group of people who were mainly of Pakistani descent. The scandal has rocked the country, and led to a wide-ranging inquiry on sex abuse in Britain. While the judge found no religious motive for the crimes, Robinson and his supporters insist there was one, and Robinson has made it his main goal to draw attention to similar crimes.
This is, ultimately, what got him arrested. In May, Robinson was jailed for filming outside a courthouse in Leeds to draw attention to another sexual abuse trial featuring Muslim defendants. He heckled men on camera as they walked into the court, broadcasting the spectacle on Facebook live. A judge ruled he was violating a court order restricting reporting on the trial until after the verdict. He was also charged with violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence for recording another trial at a courthouse in Canterbury. Robinson was swiftly sentenced to 13 months in prison. The judge sternly admonished him, saying he could have caused a mistrial with his actions, endangering the stiff sentences he claimed he wanted for the abusers. Robinson found himself back in jail.
This, it turned out, was his big break.
* * * * * *
Robinson’s wife, Jenna, finally had good news to share with her husband behind bars.
“She said, you aren’t going to believe what happened today,” Robinson recalled. “Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about you.”
Robinson could barely believe what he was hearing on the brief call less than a week after he was locked up in the Victorian-era Hull Prison in Yorkshire. He smiled for the first time since he arrived, he said.
“I thought it would make it all worth it,” he said in an interview with the Globe. “It lifted me.”
Outside the prison walls, news of Robinson’s arrest had transformed him, with head-spinning suddenness, from a local rabble rouser basically unknown outside of the UK into an international cause celebre for the right. In the United States, outrage about his case vaulted from the fringes of the far right to the president’s son’s Twitter feed in just a few days, so quickly that Robinson had trouble believing it.
But such is the nature of the global right in 2018. For all of Trumpworld’s disdain for lefty “globalists,” the movement surrounding the president is more international than ever before.
“President Trump should offer Tommy Robinson asylum,” tweeted Jack Posobiec, an alt-right figure who pushed the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, accusing, without evidence, Hillary Clinton and others of child abuse in a DC restaurant. (Posobiec has been retweeted by President Trump.) Alex Jones of the conspiracy website InfoWars asked if Robinson was still alive, implying that Muslim men in the prison would kill him. “This will wind up being a death sentence,” wrote Mike Cernovich, another alt-right social media personality. Roseanne Barr, the comedian who was fired for racist tweets about Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, echoed that sentiment, calling Robinson’s jailing a “death sentence.”
The next day, Donald Trump Jr., who follows Posobiec, tweeted his support for Robinson. “Reason #1776 for the original #brexit,” he wrote. “Don’t let America follow in those footsteps.”
Fox News’s Tucker Carlson hosted a segment on Robinson three days later, probably introducing the former football hooligan to Carlson’s conservative audience for the first time.
“I firmly believe and it’s my opinion we no longer have freedom of speech in the UK and I believe Tommy Robinson will be killed inside the prison,” said Katie Hopkins, a former right-wing columnist for the Daily Mail who has compared migrants to “cockroaches” and was forced to apologize for calling for a “final solution” for Muslims in Britain on Twitter last year.
“Everybody watching this should be horrified,” Carlson intoned on his broadcast. “This is a threat not only to your rights but to the rights of every American. Our rights derive from the British system. This may be a glimpse into our future; we should fight back as hard as we can.”
The American outrage at Robinson’s imprisonment buoyed his case in Britain, in part due to US pundits’ intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreting the UK legal system. It’s not uncommon in Britain for judges to ban all reporting on trials until after they’re over, to avoid prejudicing the jury and, thus, costly mistrials. In the United States, wholesale reporting bans aren’t an option, thanks to robust First Amendment protections for the press. But conservative media in the United States did not portray Robinson’s arrest as an issue of press freedom, instead saying he was arrested for airing “unfashionable” views, as Carlson put it. American pundits implied that people were being jailed in Britain simply for criticizing Islam, a far more incendiary charge than accusing Britain of overzealous press restrictions.
Stripped of its context, his arrest fit into a larger dystopian narrative that Robinson peddles, that the West is being “Islamisized.” And Trump Jr. and Carlson’s warning that the United States could face a similar situation probably drove even more US support Robinson’s way. Only 40 percent of tweets on Robinson in the weeks after his arrest came from UK-based accounts, according to research from advocacy group Hope Not Hate. Thirty-five percent of those tweets came from America.
But far more powerful than tweets and cable news segments was the United States’ official message lobbed Downing Street’s way, courtesy of a high-level US diplomat who decided to intervene in the case.
* * * * * *
Perhaps no one represents the internationalization of the right and its nationalist goals better than former White House adviser and Breitbart executive Steve Bannon. Booted from the White House, Bannon’s ambitions are now global. He recently started an organization called “The Movement,” based in Brussels, to help elect populist, anti-EU politicians to the European Parliament, with the hope of breaking up the organization. After the midterms, he has vowed to spend the majority of his time overseas working to elevate far-right nationalist parties in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Italy, and France.
Bannon sees Robinson as part of this larger global movement toward nationalism, and called him the “backbone” of Britain after his arrest. Robinson’s focus on Islam is a familiar one for Bannon, who has said the West is in a war against Islamic fascism. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was the Tommy Robinsons of the world who stormed the beaches at Normandy. They were the guys at Dunkirk,” Bannon said in a recent interview with British YouTuber Carl Benjamin. “Throw a stick and you hit a hundred Tommy Robinsons in the Bannon family. Hammerheads. The salt of the earth.”
Bannon’s right-hand man in the Movement is Raheem Kassam, formerly the editor of Breitbart London and an adviser to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Kassam marshaled international support for Robinson, organizing a series of rallies for him in London that featured a US congressman, Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona, and other international political figures as speakers. Kassam also used his perch at a conservative US think tank called the Middle East Forum to lobby the Trump administration on Robinson’s behalf.
In June, Kassam scored a crucial meeting with the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, to brief him on Robinson’s case. Brownback’s job is to address infringements upon religious liberties in other countries, such as Turkey’s jailing of Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson for preaching Christianity, or China’s relocating of Uighur Muslims and other religious minorities into reeducation camps. That makes it even more unusual that he would be advocating for Robinson, who has called for a ban on the building of mosques and on any Muslims entering his country, both forms of religious discrimination.
Kassam told Brownback that Robinson’s freedom of speech had been infringed upon with his arrest and that Robinson was not able to visit the prison chapel to pray because he was in solitary confinement. (The prison officials have denied that allegation, saying Robinson was only in solitary for 48 hours while they addressed his security concerns.) Brownback was worried, Kassam recalls, and said he would follow up on the matter.
And that’s exactly what happened. Brownback raised the issue of Robinson’s jailing with the British ambassador, Sir Kim Darroch, a longtime diplomat who had also served as the UK’s national security adviser under David Cameron, in June. Darroch and Brownback met in Washington to discuss religious freedom issues around the globe. Kassam was told by a member of Brownback’s staff that Brownback expressed his concerns directly to the ambassador during that meeting.
Although we don’t know how Darroch reacted to Brownback’s request, it probably took him by surprise to have such a close partner raise a religious freedom issue in his own country, especially given Robinson’s reputation in the UK for inciting hatred of Muslims. And if the United States had an interest in sending a message on Robinson’s jailing, the religious freedom envoy would not be the natural conduit for it.
“It’s strange on a number of levels,” said David Wade, former chief of staff of the State Department under secretary of state John Kerry. “There’s the obvious fact that Tommy Robinson is absolutely toxic on Brownback’s issues. He’s known as a provocateur and as an Islamophobe. It’s pretty far down the list of the people any ambassador for religious freedom would be advocating for.”
Brownback, through the US State Department, refused interview requests. A department spokesman did not answer why the ambassador believed Robinson’s case raised religious freedom concerns.
“This is an internal matter for the British justice system,” a State Department spokesman said. “We refer you to British authorities for further information on this case.”
Darroch, through the British Embassy, also declined to speak to the Globe. Both entities pointed at each other for more information. Neither denied that Robinson was discussed at the meeting.
Ultimately, Robinson was freed from jail in August after a higher court in the UK threw out part of his sentence and ordered a retrial on the charge. Robinson is still waiting to find out if the government will continue to pursue charges.
“I say a thank you to the Middle East Forum, a thank you to Congressman Gosar, a thank you to Ambassador Brownback,” Robinson said in an interview with Carlson the day after he was released from prison, listing his American backers.
He has been invited to address the Conservative Opportunity Society in Washington in November by Gosar and six other members of Congress, according to the Middle East Forum. The group is run by Representative Steve King of Iowa, who has been rebuked by some in his party for his ties to white nationalism. It’s unclear if Robinson will be allowed to come to America, given that he was jailed in the past for attempting to enter the United States on a false passport.
“My voice is louder than it’s ever been,” Robinson said.
* * * * * *
When Robinson finally arrived on foot at the historic Old Bailey courthouse in downtown London for his September court hearing, Sumner pushed himself to the front of the pack, trying to get another selfie with him.
But it was hard to push through. The crowd had gone wild, craning their necks and phones to get a glimpse of the man and chanting his name over and over, as if he were a Beatle, or Beyoncé. Police strained to keep his fans at bay, surrounding him as the group moved closer to the courthouse doors in tight formation. Robinson was difficult to spot — he’s just 5-foot-7 and was flanked by his towering cousin Kevin Carroll and a hulking bodyguard or two. And his face was semi-obscured by his ever-present smartphone, which he used to livestream the event to his nearly 1 million Facebook followers. (Robinson has been banned from Twitter.) He disappeared inside the courthouse, leaving his fans to wait outside for news about his ongoing appeal.
Meanwhile, Sumner soaked up the support and love from his fellow Robinson fans. In Sheffield, he had often been mocked and derided for wearing his Trump mask, with residents recoiling from the implied anti-immigrant message in the disguise. Some told him to get lost or even threatened to fight him. Here, the red MAGA hats and near-universal approval for the American president in the crowd defied Trump’s unpopularity in the country as a whole. Several Tommy Robinson fans said they tweet at the president, asking for help in England. Another rallygoer in a Trump hat, Simon Keene, said he was fully invested in the president’s battle with US media, watching hours of Fox News and CNN on YouTube. “Watching a lot of American media has got me to realize that the Western freedoms have been slowly chipped away,” he said, showing off his T-shirt that read BBC: British Bias Corporation.
“Trump for prime minister!” yelled Robinson fan Zoe Mumby. “Would you clone him, please? We need him.”
Trump’s rise to power has inspired nationalists worldwide, but the Internet is what has brought them together, creating a sense of consensus around ideas that have been considered beyond the bounds of acceptable debate in Britain. Through the glow of their screens, people filled with rage about immigration or Muslims or liberals in the UK find and validate each other, and Trump is often a common bond between them.
Sumner was able to tap into that online community and build up a following online, so that by the September rally for Robinson, he had a few thousand people watching his videos from outside the courthouse. Trump fans stopped him repeatedly for selfies, declaring their love for the president.
Sumner, meanwhile, feels like he’s a soldier on an international battlefield, with Trump as one of his generals.
“It’s a war. It’s a real war,” he said.