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‘Populism is all about hair’: what rightwing leaders are trying to tell us with their wild coiffures

<span>Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Over the last decade, the global stage has become crowded with rightwing populist politicians seeking attention. It’s a development that has been subject to economic, social and historical analyses, but one aspect of this phenomenon has been neglected: the critical role of the haircut. The former Tory minister Rory Stewart acknowledged this fact last week on The Rest is Politics podcast when he declared: “Populism is all about hair.”

Look at 53-year-old Javier Milei, the soi-disant anarcho-capitalist who last month was voted 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.

Milei, who campaigned with a chainsaw, has the face of a farmer or an armed robber but the hair of a bassist in a heavy rock band that now earns its living on the pub circuit. It’s a haircut that has earned him the nickname “the wig”, although his hair is apparently real. It screams nonconformity but also suggests a certain irreverent charm, as though he might reduce the country to an impoverished playground for the super-rich yet also be a fun guy to drink a few glasses of Fernet-Branca with.

The maverick mop was first turned into a political fashion statement by Boris Johnson. No martyr to the comb, Johnson realised early on that politics was a branch of theatre, and that all the best actors build their characters around physical traits. His untameable thatch became a symbol of an independent mindset, of someone who ploughs his own furrow.

Boris Johnson’s untameable thatch: no martyr to the comb.
Boris Johnson’s untameable thatch: no martyr to the comb. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

History tells us that that furrow turned out to go in whatever direction the political winds were blowing, while the meteorological winds often transformed his head into a scene of coiffure catastrophe.

There seemed to be an inverse relationship between his preoccupation with personal ambition and attention devoted to sorting out his hair. It was a kind of inspired double-bluff.

“There’s nothing more suspicious than a man who looks like his hair is too neat,” says Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of Vogue. But what about the man who hides his dubious intentions under the cover of tonsorial dishevelment?

“It’s an awareness of image,” says Shulman. “That kind of hair marks you out. It turns you into a widely recognised character.”

Most politicians like to parrot the unconvincing mantra that it’s all about policy not personality, but in the case of populism, which tends to be sketchy on plans and programmes, performative charisma takes on even greater significance.

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.”

Geert Wilders: the weird bloke from accounts’ homage to Rutger Hauer’s android in Blade Runner.
Geert Wilders: the weird bloke from accounts’ homage to Rutger Hauer’s android in Blade Runner. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/REX/Shutterstock

In this era of celebrity branding, many of the promotional techniques used in showbusiness and marketing have been adopted by politicians looking to make a direct impact with the public. Perhaps the most egregious case in recent history is Donald Trump, who honed his image in gossip columns and on reality TV before using it to propel himself, via Twitter and Fox News, into the White House.

The Washington Post once ran a piece with the imperishable 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”.

To say that the super-teased quiff-cum-comb-over has been the target of mockery would be like saying Warren Beatty didn’t follow a monastic lifestyle in the 1970s – the statement doesn’t really do justice to the magnitude of the situation.

And yet all the derision and satire hasn’t managed to move a single hair on Trump’s head. His hairstyle hasn’t changed at all since he was inaugurated seven years ago. It may have thinned a tad, but it remains emphatically that hairdo, the one Michael Wolff says in Fire and Fury involves scalp-reduction surgery, hair-stretching, and a regime of brushing up and holding in place with stiffening spray, not to mention the anti-hair-loss drug finasteride.

Shulman believes the stylistic persistence in the face of so much opprobrium is in itself telling. “I think that women are far more susceptible to criticism and comment about their hair, and they will do something about it. Men get their look, and they think it’s a matter of pride and strength to stick by it, no matter the criticism.”

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. Why hasn’t it damaged Trump’s allure, as it would in almost any other walk of life? “I think you’d have to draw a parallel with the way that telling out-and-out untruths would normally incur some kind of sanction in other realms,” says Bale, “but when we’re talking about these populist politicians, it almost adds to their lustre with their supporters. Their hair is a kind of visual fuck-you to the establishment.”

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.

Hair has been a signifier of virility and masculinity since the days of Samson, and in the TV age its absence has been viewed as a political weakness, a kind of electoral kryptonite. It’s surely no coincidence that, while 40% of men over the age of 40 show signs of male pattern baldness, America has not voted in a bald president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. In the UK, there has not been a bald prime minister since Winston Churchill in 1951.

Javier Milei: nicknamed ‘the wig’, his hair is apparently real.
Javier Milei: nicknamed ‘the wig’, his hair is apparently real. Photograph: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

Presentational rules drawn from conventional politics apply doubly to populist politics. Which is why the godfather of modern-day populists, Silvio Berlusconi, fought his severely receding hairline with hair transplants. The result wasn’t so much a striking hairstyle as a furry cosmetic sheen that drew attention to what it was seeking to conceal. As with so many elements of the man’s life, it invited you to suspend disbelief on the basis of nothing more tangible than outrageous chutzpah.

At the opposite end of the hirsute spectrum lies Wilders, who promises “zero tolerance for street scum” (including 14-year-olds). But forget the far-right rhetoric and check out his lustrous platinum-dyed locks. Blowdried almost to the point of petrification, he looks like the weird bloke from accounts’ homage to Rutger Hauer’s android in Blade Runner. Is it aryan chic, übermensch style, or just a means of rendering an unprepossessing man more memorable?

In the age of social media, when people are turning away from established, perhaps more analytical media, the visually arresting becomes increasingly important. “The ability to appeal to people in very clear, simple terms, both in terms of policy and visual brand, makes it more likely that populist politicians are going to be with us for the foreseeable future,” says Bale.

What that means in concrete political terms is hard to predict. If Wilders manages to form a government in the Netherlands, he’ll almost certainly have to abandon most of his manifesto. But the majority of pundits wrongly assumed that the responsibilities of presidential office would moderate Trump.

Whatever the outcome, there’s little reason to believe that populist hairstyles will become less conspicuous.

As Bale sagely warns: “Just wait for the mullets.”