Usually it’s tacky to focus on a candidate’s appearance. To talk about what women candidates are wearing instead of what they’re saying is demeaning and sexist. To focus on how a candidate looks is to ignore the substance of that person’s candidacy.
Except that Donald Trump’s hair is his candidacy for president. It is a transparently artificial creation that is apparently meant to project a kind of authentic virility, and the excitement comes not from believing in the hair, but from believing in the chutzpah of a man who would go out there under that hair and dare you not to believe in it. It’s the thrill of drag, which is not the thrill of being fooled, but the thrill of exaggeration and shared make-believe. Trump is running a drag candidacy, dressing up in an oversize president costume and making broad gestures to rile up a crowd that will call him “Mr. President” the way you call a fat 6’4″ man in heels “Lady Boom Boom.”
To insist on debating Trump on substance, and to mean by that his ideas, is to miss the substance of his campaign. It’s like debating fascism on the merits while ignoring the aesthetics. Without the torches and the arm bands, the whole thing falls apart. Without the hair and the TV bluster, Trump isn’t anything. No one on the right would care what Sarah Palin was saying either if she looked like Bernie Sanders.
It is worth remembering that this is not an election year. There is nary a caucus in 2015. Donald Trump can command a small plurality in polls of self-identified Republicans who are responding to presidential polls in a non-election year, but that’s about it. He’s riling up the people who in other years went around cheering David Duke or Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot. (We may well end up with a regular election in which Clinton beats Bush with a plurality and an independent nutjob with a Mexico obsession steals votes mostly from the right while America simmers with racial tension, so get out your flannel shirts and your Singles soundtrack.)
Trump’s never going to be president and he knows it, but what he does for a living is bluster, and he’s good at it. And since there’s not actually an election of any kind happening at the moment, the press is happy to focus on a guy who knows how to make noise and get ratings. (No, not you, Bernie Sanders!)
And the hair? The hair is part of the bluster. It’s a taunt, a joke, a wink and a nod, a dare. It is part and parcel of what Trump has on offer, and making fun of it is fair game.