President Trump’s iconic hair has become the comical cultural reference of our times, but what it represents is far more sinister than we have given it credit for.
People tend to make fun of Donald Trump’s hair. The first joke in The Telegraph’s list of the “The 21 funniest jokes about Donald Trump” (28th April 2017) is Albert Brooks’ tweet of 16th March 2015: “Donald trump announces this morning that he will run for president. His hair will announce on Friday.” A trawl of Trump jokes on Twitter reckons “about 70-80 percent of the entries” are about his hair. The Channel 4 comedy comment show The Last Leg pokes fun at Trump so often that it has inaugurated a jar in which to put money every time any of them makes a Trump joke – atop it is a miniature golden toupee in the Trump style.
Laughing at the rich and powerful is good for one’s health. Laughing together bonds us in mutual scorn of the enemies of humankind. But we should also be wary of political fun-making. Laughter is an agreeable experience that may make us affectionate for what occasions it; mockery is cruel, which may make us feel sorry for its object; laughter is a safety valve that may relieve us of our horror at a thing like Trump while not actually changing the thing itself. We need to laugh in these terrible times but we also need to think about just what it is we are laughing at. And really Trump is no matter for laughter.
Trump’s hair is not just weird and noticeable, the basis of most of the jokes, it also literally embodies what fuels his appalling policies. Most obviously it is a sign of male vanity. Teasing of men’s attempts to deal with balding is one of the most venerable of all sources of merriment – it’s there in ancient Greek and Roman comedy, in Shakespeare, Molière and Goldoni, in Carry Ons and stand-up. Good – great to undercut the pomposity that comes with masculine ageing. The immediate humour in jokes about comb-overs, toupees and implants is that they – the hair-dos – never really work, merely draw attention to the vanity that produced them. But the jokes also tease the anxiety over loss of virility, of both strength and sexual prowess, of power over other men and over women. Trumpian hair jokes might nail the president’s misogyny in his “grab a pussy” remark and his prowling of the stage in television debates with Hillary Clinton, and in the near total absence of women in his entourage except for the sprinkling of family members, staring out from faces and bodies lifeless from diet and surgery.
But there’s also a class dimension to the hair. Cosmopolitan, metropolitan, professional men don’t do comb-overs, toupees and implants. They’re naff. Honestly balding heads and receding hairlines are cool. Conceivably the biggest single thing that undermined Arthur Scargill’s gravitas as a leader in the 1984-1985 miners’ strike was his brillo-pad comb-over. Trump’s hair is in this lineage. One of the things that is difficult to understand about Trump’s victory is the support for this born well-heeled, multiply-bankrupted, mega-rich boss among the chronically poor, deskilled and unemployed, the idea that somehow he can represent them. No doubt misgivings about success and riches are less widespread in the USA than in the UK, but it is also his looks that make him plausible as the champion of those left behind and precisely in his spun-over, planted-atop, lacquer-heavy hair. And the problem is that every time we make some screamingly witty remark about it we confirm the rightness of the hostility and resentment felt by Trump’s supporters towards the smart-ass, clever-dick, above-it-all political, professional and cultural classes. From this perspective, our jokes about his hair not only do nothing to undermine him, they even reinforce his position.
Then there’s the colour of his hair, some kind of golden. If they have any, all men’s hair in later life goes grey and white – in old age, bald or not, different ethnic groups are follically equal. And they can all dye their hair. But to have it blonde (yellow gold) at that age only looks appropriate on white men. This is the most sinister aspect of the 45th president’s hair – it shrieks whiteness. Even Trump is politically astute enough not to declare himself white supremacist. When the alt-right announced their joy at his victory, he distanced himself from their statement, in a rather mealy-mouthed way (“it’s not a group that I want to energise”). Having said that, alongside his Teutonic surname and Scottish first name, he comes trailing clouds of white heritage. (And historically the Klan claimed a connection to the clans of Scotland.) If the sparse sprinkling of women around him is striking, the sea of whiteness is even more so. This is the whitest administration, not since Obama but since before George Bush Jnr., for chrissakes.
In the 19th century, white people had no compunction about speaking of the superiority of white people. Subsequently, they have been contented to lead the world in the name of a common humanity which they alone have been entitled to embody. Trump leans on this assumption of the invisibility, inevitability and unspeakability of white ethnicity, but when he speaks of putting America first, he really means putting white America first. This is increasingly noted – if nothing else, we can be grateful for Trump having made whiteness visible and spoken again.
The male vanity, class naffness and excessive whiteness of the Trump hair are not incidental to his nastiness and dangerousness as a politician – they fuel it. Commentators often lament that politics now is all about personality instead of policies. But not always was this probably ever so, it is misleading to think either that personality is not political or that it doesn’t matter what the personality of a politician is like as long as he or she has the right policies. Politicians have to take decisions, usually under pressure – so their personality matters and suggests which way they will jump. Trump’s hair tells us that he has no qualms about limiting women’s control over their own bodies by withdrawing funding for birth control and abortion; it boasts of who has the bigger weapons in his risky face-off with Kim Jong Un; it will readily put the men he feels at home with before the future of the planet in his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement; and it puts white America first by making a start on excluding non-white entry to the country with Mexicans and Muslims.
The president’s hair is horrible and ridiculous, but perhaps we should react to it more with horror than ridicule.
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