New York – Much has been written about Donald Trump’s peculiar hairstyle, the kind of puffy, dyed comb-over one would associate with a downmarket nightclub manager rather than a presidential candidate. Is there really any more to be said? Actually, the question of hair in politics might not be as trivial as it seems.
It is remarkable how many politicians, especially on the populist right, have sported heterodox hairdos. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, used black pencil to fill in the patches not covered by his two hair transplants. The Dutch demagogue Geert Wilders dyes his Mozartian bouffant platinum blond. Boris Johnson, the Brexit rabble-rouser, now UK foreign secretary, takes care to keep his straw-colored thatch in a permanent state of studied untidiness. All have scored highly with voters filled with anger and resentment at polished urban elites.
Then there was the father of modern European populism, the late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who had no hair at all. But his shiny, clean-shaven pate stood out as much among the neat gray coiffures of mainstream politicians as Johnson’s blond mop or Trump’s gilded comb-over (all these men, except Berlusconi, are blonds, by the way, or fake blonds; dark hair doesn’t seem to work so well with the populist mob).
Standing out is of course the point. The strange hair, or shaven head, makes the popular leader instantly recognizable. This type of branding is common among dictators. Hitler’s visual image could be reduced to a greasy cowlick and a toothbrush moustache. The oddest-looking of all contemporary dictators must be North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, whose clean-shaven back and sides are cultivated as a deliberate imitation of his grandfather’s 1930s proletarian hairstyle. His father, Kim Jong-il, tried – albeit with little success – to emulate Elvis Presley’s pompadour.
But self-parody sometimes works in democracies too. Winston Churchill, who in many ways is Johnson’s model, always made sure to carry a big cigar, even when he had no intention of smoking it. There was not much he could do about his sparse hair, but he certainly dressed differently than anyone else. No other British politician, even during the war, wore the kind of zipped-up boilersuit Churchill adopted. Studied nonchalance, or cultivated eccentricity, was a sign of the typical aristocrat who felt no need to conform to the boring standards of middle-class correctness.
Churchill understood something that many mainstream politicians miss. The way to the masses’ hearts is not to pretend that you are just like them. On the contrary, if you are from the upper class, you lay it on thick, you turn yourself into a caricature of the higher born, like the old-fashioned aristocrat who despises the timid bourgeois, but gets on fine with his gamekeeper. Johnson is not an aristocrat, but he went to Eton and can easily pose as one, a skill he uses to great effect.
The US does not have a formal aristocracy. Status is more a question of money. One of the secrets of Trump’s popularity is that he flaunts his supposed great wealth. He even exaggerates it, if necessary. The absurd golden chairs in his pastiche Louis XIV homes are a coarse imitation of aristocratic style.
Fortuyn, on a more modest Dutch scale, and Berlusconi, on a more grandiose Italian stage, had similar tastes. People for whom this is the stuff of dreams admired them for it. Affirming the dreams of people who have little is the key to successful populism.
The main thing is that these politicians are not like the dull and moderate mainstream. Even insiders have to pose as outsiders, who can stand with the common man against the political establishment. Weirdness – peculiar upper-class mannerisms, ostentatious living, outrageous jokes, deliberate crassness, and mad hairstyles – is an asset.
I am not sure that people, who rightly see Trump as a great danger to the US and the world, sufficiently appreciate this. Much has been made of the reasonable and moderate tone of the Democratic National Convention, compared to the “dark,” snarling bombast of the Republicans’ event. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton herself were paragons of dignity, compared to Trump’s Mussolini-like mannerisms and verbal aggression.
Clinton supporters, at the convention and elsewhere, tend to attack Trump with ridicule, the method once used by Voltaire against the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Ridicule can be an effective weapon. In the 1920s, journalists like H.L. Mencken made Christian fundamentalists in the US look so foolish that they dropped out of politics for several generations.
Trump’s mad and offensive braggadocio, his vulgar tastes, and his extraordinary looks are all eminently ripe for satire. Comedians like Jon Stewart have had merciless fun at his expense. But satire and ridicule will not work to persuade people who love Trump precisely because of his weirdness. It sets him apart from the establishment they despise. Charisma does not call for restraint in words, appearance, or manner. The weirder he gets, the more his supporters like him. And the more that clever comedians in New York mock him, the more his fans will rally to his side.
This is the great perversity in our age of angry populism. Reasonable arguments and political optimism can now be turned into negative qualities, the typical marks of a complacent elite, oblivious to the concerns of people who feel that the joke has been on them. Reasonable argument did not work to convince 51.9% of British voters to remain part of the EU. It may not work to keep an ignorant and dangerous buffoon – silly hairstyle and all – from becoming President of the US.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016