What is it with populists and comical haircuts?

Crazy hair can be as much of an asset to a firebrand politician as crazy rhetoric

Artillery Row

“Because they ARE shit!” he bellowed across the studio. “They will KILL you! This is the point: you can’t give shit leftists an inch — if you give them an inch, they will use it to destroy you. You can’t negotiate with leftards! [ … ] We are better than them at everything! And it TRIGGERS THEM! [ … ] THEY ARE LOSING!”

It is rather difficult to imagine Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer doing a media slot like this, but a lack of dynamism is only part of the reason why. Much more importantly, they also lack the hair. This would be a joke, were it not for the fact that it isn’t. What is also not a joke is the following fact: the man quoted above is now the elected President of Argentina.

Javier Milei is an unusual man. Not only is he an anarcho-capitalist intent on abolishing much of his country’s civic infrastructure — including the central bank and departments of transport, health and education — but he is also a cosplayer and tantric sex guru. Regardless of his politics and personal peculiarities, the idea that any normal country could elect a man with such ridiculous hair (and politics) to the highest office in the land is perplexing. Or is it?

Milei is by no means the first world leader to be badly furnished in the hair department. Indeed, there has been something of an influx of them recently. The unkempt, Aryan werewolf Boris Johnson. The vampiric Geert Wilders and Donald Trump. Now the 1970s Welsh rugby union player, Javier Milei. All have shocked the world with their hair as much as their politics — but what’s it all for? Some have suggested it’s a symptom of arrogance, or an attempt to look like a man of the people. Others speculate that it’s merely a case of the exterior reflecting the interior — in other words, they’re all freaks. Perhaps the most challenging assertion to refute.

But the hair is not coincidental. The abnormally coiffured politician is employing a carefully orchestrated political strategy, designed to convince the public to create a separation in their minds between the populists and conventional politicians. It isn’t enough for populists to convince the public that they are merely different from normal politicians. The public must be convinced that the new populist right is not only unorthodox, but anti-orthodox.

Populists are cultivating an artificial ridiculousness in order to distract the public

Take Tony Blair or David Cameron. Both were slick operators at the dispatch box, and they were experts at handling the media. With respect to hair and general appearance, though, they were both the epitome of “stock-politician”, the sort of blokes you could trust not to put “use your initiative” in the letter of last resort. Aesthetically, David Cameron puts one in mind of the kind of man you’d cast as prime minister if you were charged with directing a Christmas romcom. It should be acknowledged that David Cameron and Tony Blair’s images were also carefully engineered public personae, a professional front to make often questionable policies seem like good statecraft. Still, they did at least pretend to be honest and honourable, which meant they were to some degree accountable when they fell short of these standards. Trump and Johnson never claimed or tried to be honest, and so they were never really accountable. Honesty simply was not part of their image or appeal.

What we are witnessing with populism is a kind of subliminal subversion tactic: an attempt at satirising the idea of what a real politician should be. Dishevelled hair is only one aspect of the strategy. Boris Johnson took deliberate relish in employing unconventional pronunciations of ordinary words. Whenever Johnson is pronouncing “vegan” like “Afghan”, or “frisbee” like “TB, or telling the press he makes models of buses to relax, it’s not a slip up: it’s a deliberate act.

All of this is hilarious, and that is precisely the problem. If voters can be deceived into thinking in light of political figures’ appearances, then they might be deceived into taking the same approach to their politics and their behaviour. In other words, populists are cultivating an artificial ridiculousness in order to distract the public from thinking seriously about the true values (or lack thereof) that underlie their politics.

Beneath the hair is something dangerous. Under the carefully crafted farce, the populist right is attempting to further a sinister agenda. Whether it’s the demonisation of immigrants, irresponsible foreign policy, or good old-fashioned plutocracy, the public are being fooled into thinking these figures are harmless. All of these politicians — Trump, Wilders, Johnson, Milei — are using image as a substitute for principle. Incompetence, sleaze and unreliable leadership are obvious consequences. The real threat this type of politician represents is to something much more fundamental: the idea that political life should be defined by spectacle rather than by values.

Of course, this is nothing new. Think of Churchill’s V-sign, or the Miliband sandwich disaster of 2014. Images and gestures have enormous power both to instil and destroy public confidence. Again, here the populists have the advantage because they are largely immune to satire: they’ve already satirised themselves. The only hope, therefore, is that the joke ceases to be funny, that people stop laughing at the silly hair and the roguish personae. Boris Johnson’s shambolic management of the COVID crisis was one such case, and there are likely to be more. Sooner or later, you run into the physics of reality. When that happens, you’d better hope that you haven’t voted on the basis of the candidate’s amusing hair.

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