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The Emperor’s Hairdo

A waxwork of President Donald Trump, Madame Tussauds, London, January 18, 2017
Neil Hall/Reuters
A waxwork of President Donald Trump, Madame Tussauds, London, January 18, 2017

One can and usually should be branded as superficial if one concentrates on such a surface item as a politician’s hair. Donald Trump’s signature hairdo is so prominent that cartoonists use it as a shorthand identifier in their drawings. Writers have reason to avoid what can reduce their comments to the cartoon level.

But who is the one who concentrates most on the creation and maintenance of that improbable confection? It is Trump, who favors and fondles this as his trademark. Does he handle its upkeep all by himself? Has he any kind of regular barber? Does he have some secret and specializing artist who can invent such an artifact? The whole matter is cloaked in deep (and possibly super-expensive) mystery, as Ashley Feinberg argued last year.

The hair does not just fall into that configuration naturally when Trump wakes up in the morning, before he can start his tweeting. It must be rebuilt, with whatever adhesives he contrives to use in its construction. It is nothing so simple as a comb-over, or comb-forward. It is a comb-from-who-knows-where into who-knows-what. It makes great demands to be recreated every morning and maintained fastidiously all day. It is not self-sustaining, even with calibrated rest periods under the “Make America Great Again” hat that, disguised as a campaign promotion, was a hair retainer (necessitating brief rejiggerings after it was taken off). To rebuild it every morning does not require a rethinking of the architecture—that was fixed long ago, all the effort now is just a matter of preservation—though each morning the tint of the day has to be decided on.

Where before have we seen such fastidious arranging and keeping of a male hairstyle? I think some of those writing about Trump as an infant or a toddler—what Maureen Dowd called a seventy-year-old seven-year-old—have the wrong age. Some of us remember friends or ourselves coaxing a pompadour or arranging a careful disorder when we were adolescents. I remember the teen parking attendant Kookie Kookson (played by Edd Byrnes) in the TV series 77 Sunset Strip. Kookie was constantly and lovingly arranging each strip of his extensively toniced hair. He was the inspiration for the 1959 hit song, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb,” sung by Connie Stevens.

What we have in Donald Trump is a seventy-year-old Kookie Kookson, a self-adoring and self-doubting adolescent, wondering what others think of him. He must spend great amounts of time to find out what is being said about him. Do people really like him? When he posed on the phone as his own press agent, the fictional “John Miller,” he said that famous beauties wanted to leave their boyfriends so they could sleep with him. What could be a more adolescent fantasy? It is the purest essence of “Kookie, Kookie.” But what if real people do not adore on this scale? What if they reject and mock him? Then his challenged self-esteem gives him the urgent assignment to tear such people down, as unattractive, unpopular, losers. These exercises drain large amounts of his admittedly abundant energy.

What would happen to Trump if he lost his hair (or what passes for it)? The first thing is that he would save a great deal of time in the creation and maintenance of such an artifact. It’s amazing what forty minutes here and forty minutes there adds up to, day by day, week by week. He would, furthermore, gain all the time he has to spend finding out what people say about his hair, his wonderful attractiveness, his non-loser look. But this gain would not be worth it. His image would suffer, in his own eyes, a tremendous blow. His very identity would totter. How could he bear to preen in the mirror every day and look at the woefully abandoned space? Would he have the confidence to face his foes? Would he think that even his friends were snickering?

Milton wrote that Samson, whose strength was in his hair, considered it a God-given “hallowed pledge / Of all my strength”—what he called “my precious fleece.” When he loses that hair, Samson is at the mercy of his enemies, who blind and enslave him. To put so much of life into one’s hair is giving hostages to fortune. Even Edd Byrnes found it hard to find a comparably iconic acting role after he gave up his comb on 77 Sunset Strip. Even as late as 2005, TV Guide was still listing him as “Kookie,” one of “TV’s Greatest Teen Idols.” Donald Trump will clearly do anything to keep from losing his hair—though in holding onto it he may lose all the non-teen requirements of holding onto the presidency of the United States.