Netherlands | Populism

Geert Wilders and the politics of hair
The Dutch right-wing politician's bleached blonde hair is part of his populist appeal.

Andrew Anthony in The Observer rightly argues that we need to talk more about hair if we want to understand the popularity of politicians such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Geert Wilders and Javier Milei who claim to express the people’s will. As Delilah knew, hair gives power – and that is why she cut Samson’s locks. Hair helps to build an unconventional persona, and that is exactly what you need if you want access to that source of power called charisma: the promise that this incredibly special person can solve all problems.

When social order falters and trust in knowledge, religion and politics weakens, we can only rely on someone who stands on the sidelines, because he or she is not part of this world. Now, Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders is the longest-serving representative in parliament, having held a seat since 1998. He was the mentor of Mark Rutte, the current prime minister, after the latter left Unilever for parliament. Yet Wilders presents himself as an outsider. With unparliamentary statements, with a southern Dutch accent, and with his hair colour.

His bleached blonde hair is particularly intriguing because it hides the fact that he has an Indonesian background. His mother was born in East Java as the daughter of colonial administrator Johan Ording and his wife Johanna, who came from an old Indonesian family. In 1946, they fled to the Netherlands. In 1963, Geert was born in Venlo, in the Limburg province, and visited his mother’s parents often. Wilders’ extreme nationalism and his blonde hair symbolise an excessive identification with the Netherlands. This hair is not conventional, but at the same time it says “yes, I am purely Dutch!”. Salvation can only come from outside this world, but the saviour must be one of us.

While Wilders’ hair contributes to increase his own positive charisma, he uses the hair of others to stigmatise them. To insult Muslim men, he points to their beards. As for Muslim women, he points to how their hair is covered. This contributes to their negative charisma. They represent what you should fear. And it also helps to put order in the world: the confusion ends when you can blame a minority. Then you can find faith in a new world, a Netherlands that most people can believe in again.

Hair is a serious matter. If people no longer experience coherence and lack perspective, they look for someone who subtly identifies evil and promises progress. In dark times, we want to believe that a saviour will come, with or without a sensational coiffure.

Kees de Groot is a sociologist of religion. He holds the KSGV chair in Sociology of Worldviews and Public Mental Health at Tilburg University, Netherlands, and is a visiting professor at the University of Agder, Norway.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Democracy in Action’s editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

*Published earlier in the Norwegian daily Klassekampen.
Photo credit: Peter van der Sluijs/Wikimedia Commons.