Hair today and gone tomorrow?
In political science, populism is the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another - "the pure people" and "the corrupt elite", according to Cas Mudde, author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction. The true populist leader claims to represent the unified "will of the people". He stands in opposition to an enemy, often embodied by the current system - aiming to "drain the swamp" or tackle the "liberal elite", according to Benjamin Moffitt, author of The Global Rise of Populism. Of course, both books give numerous examples of populist leaders around the world, but neither of them spotted the seemingly obvious link between hair and populism.
That honour goes to British minister Rory Stewart who acknowledged this on The Rest is Politics podcast when he declared: “Populism is all about hair.”
Look at 53-year-old Javier Milei, the chainsaw wielding anarcho-capitalist who last month became president of Argentina, or 60-year-old Geert Wilders, the anti-immigrant leader of Holland’s Party for Freedom, which recently won the most votes in the Dutch general election. What immediately strikes the observer is the abundance of hair possessed by these two middle-aged men of the radical right.
The maverick mop (as opposed to the carefully presented coif) was first turned into a political fashion statement by Boris Johnson. Johnson, clearly a man who doesn't own a comb, figured out that politics was a branch of theatre, and that all the best actors build their characters around physical traits. His wild blond thatch became a symbol of an independent mindset, of someone who ploughs his own furrow - and doesn't follow the rules.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, says: “All politicians have a brand, but when you’re a populist politician, it has to be outsize, and outsize hair is part of that brand. It makes you recognisable to people who pay little attention to politics.”
Perhaps the most egregious case in recent history is Donald Trump. The Washington Post once ran a piece with the headline: The 100 greatest descriptions of Donald Trump’s hair ever written. One contributor compared him to a “troll doll”, another referred to the hair as an “inter-dimensional, gravity-warping vortex”, and a third said it was a “masterpiece whose guiding principal is a heroic desire to completely conceal the forehead”.
Look at me, the hair seems to say, you can see I’m a laughing-stock, a narcissistic triumph over self-knowledge, yet here I am, unabashed. It’s like a bomb-proof pompadour - with a healthy dollop of bad manners and rude behaviour thrown in for fun.
Populism, after all, is primarily concerned with fostering the idea that an exceptional person - or at least a person with exceptional hair - can cut through all the boring procedure of democratic governance and transform a nation through sheer force of personality.
As Bale sagely warns: “Just wait for the mullets.”