Javier Milei, head and hair. Wikimedia / public domain
Recent and upcoming presidential elections suggest a surge in right-wing populism worldwide. And it appears president elect of Argentina, Javier Milei; the next prime minister of the Netherlands, Geert Wilders; and former U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson have something else in common with former U.S. president and likely 2024 candidate Donald Trump. These leaders are known for using big hair to volumize their bad ideas.
Javier Milei won the final round of Argentina’s presidential elections on November 19 by a large margin of votes after placing second during the first round. The previously unknown candidate, who created his “La Libertad Avanza” (LLA) party just two years ago, donned a larger than life messy chestnut bouffant reminiscent of the caudillos (armed and dangerous men) of nineteenth-century Latin America—with sideburns to show it. Milei has also become a popular candidate among right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson, who traveled to Argentina to interview Milei last September.
Unlike Milei, Geert Wilders and his right-wing anti-Islamic, xenophobic diatribes have been present in the Netherlands for a while, but his Party for Freedom shocked the European Union when it won the most recent parliamentary election. Wilders wears an flamboyantly combed, puffy hairdo, always disheveled at the back, in an attempt to show that he can challenge the rules. Boris Johnson was one of the main ideologues behind the Brexit movement, which has transformed the country from “Great” to a “Littler” Britain. Commentators have suggested that his unforgettable, unkempt head of white-blond straw is a carefully cultivated signal of being “outside social control” and “too posh to fail.” What about “D” Trump? The former POTUS is busily defending felony charges in New York, Washington, D.C., Florida, and Georgia, and has just been declared ineligible for a presidential bid by Colorado courts. Yet he still finds time for his hair: voluminous and twisted around his head, with a hard to define orangey-blond color. According to recent polls, Trump is still the most supported right-wing presidential candidate and likely the Republican Party nominee for the upcoming presidential election. If elected, he would likely put in danger, if not outright destroy, the more than 200 years of democratic, generally tolerant traditions in this country.
Why do these politicians don big hair? Perhaps their inventively crafted manes serve to hide behind their bad ideas. Or maybe, like the pompadours of male entertainers, their big hair is the best way to be remembered by voters. Who can forget such hairdos?
To be sure, not all of right-wing populists have big hair; a slick short-back-and-sides will also appear atop a skull full of bad ideas. Take well-groomed former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who implemented policies that targeted the irreproducible and worldwide oxygen-generating Amazon Rainforest: his hair is parted on the far, far right of his scalp. Fellow right-wing populist Viktor Orbán always appears in neatly combed hair, despite a difficult cowlick that divides his salt-and-pepper head right down the middle. In the last four terms of his rule, Orbán has transformed Hungary into an illiberal nation.
Brandishing a chainsaw as a symbol of what he would do to the “political caste,” Argentina’s Milei is said to be a libertarian with bad ideas but little-known policies. This is another distinctive characteristic of populists, who tend to say what they would do to appeal to the masses but provide very few details on how to do it. Milei gathered the support of young voters, primarily male, and the poor, even though these voters would not likely benefit from his self-defined “anarcho-capitalist ideas” that accompany a radically chaotic hairstyle similarly at odds with itself. Perhaps these voters believe that an outsider with distinctively extreme ideas can fix a country in desperate need of fixing.
Alongside nutty economic policies such as dollarizing the Argentine currency, what makes Milei particularly dangerous are his anti-feminist views in a country that took decades to show progress for women. For example, gender quotas were enforced in the country’s legislature in 1991 and gender parity as late as 2017. Today, the national legislative branch (and most of its provincial legislatures) has nearly reached equality between men and women—and some of the most significant policies advanced by women legislators have been those dealing with pervasive domestic and political violence and the legalization of abortion. In his presidential campaign, Milei said that if elected he would ban abortion and shut down the ministry of women, gender, and diversity, as well as the ministries of science, health, and education.
Yet there is hope that Milei may tilt towards the center after he takes Argentina’s top job. Some of the most popular candidates from the center-right party Juntos por el Cambio (JC) threw their political weight (and that of their voters) to support Milei during the run-off election, which catapulted the LLA candidate into the presidency. Now Milei will need the support of JC in the legislature to advance his policies, as his party has a minuscule representation in the national legislature, and little or no representation in subnational legislatures and governorships. Rather than extreme right-wing policies, it seems likely (though debatable) that Milei will become a more moderate leader with practical and doable policies. So far, Milei has lost some of the weight he had gained during his campaign, literally and ideologically. Will a haircut perhaps follow?
Adriana Piatti-Crocker is a professor of political science and Global Studies Program Lead at the University of Illinois Springfield. A native Argentinean, she is an expert on gender and politics in Latin America, a Public Voices fellow, and a member of the OpEd Alumni Project sponsored by the University of Illinois.