Sun. May 29th, 2022


As everyone knows, extremist political movements need a strong aesthetic if they are going to succeed. The post-Trump nationalists are floundering on this front.

Start with Tucker Carlson. Since Trump lost the election, the Fox News talking head serves as the point of the populist spear. His look is “overripe preppy”: slightly shaggy hair, blue blazer, a patterned shirt, club tie with diagonal stripes, and a white pocket hanky, folded into three little points. Cocktail party at the Edgartown Yacht Club, circa 1983! (Except the compulsive tidiness of the pocket square, which would garner some puzzled looks over the gin-and-tonics.)

There is a sense in which this retro clothing is just right for a jittery revanchist such as Carlson. I’m not a political scientist, but I like my colleague’s Simon Kuper’s read on extremism: “Far right and far left share an outlook: hatred of one’s own nation, at least in its current incarnation, and the search for a better foreign country to love.” Tucker’s default facial expression is a pinched mix of bewilderment and disgust, like a parent who has come home to find their teenager has trashed the house. Aggrieved at the current state of America he longs, in the standard way, for an imagined past.

Awkwardly, however, Carlson’s longtime style hearkens back to the wrong past. Carlson looks like a Reaganite, which is all wrong politically – insufficiently nativist, too pro-business, too establishment.

To his credit, Carlson is trying to meet the moment. In his new daytime show, he puts on a flannel shirt, in an apparent nod to the rural working class. The shirt matches the set of the show, which tries for a log cabin look. But the set and the shirt both miss their targets. The former looks like a ’70s ski house and the latter comes straight out of the LL Bean catalog. You can take the boy out of the prep school, etc.

Part of the problem the movement has is that the current round of political strongmen have very little imagination about costume. Trump sticks to the baggy suit (to conceal his weight) with white shirt and oversized shiny monochrome tie. The uniform of Hungary’s Viktor Orban is similar (though his ties are usually orange, the color of his political party).

Former US President Donald Trump this month in his usual outfit, featuring a shiny monochrome tie. . . © Getty Images

. . . a look loosely shared by Hungary’s Viktor Orban © Olivier Hoslet / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

What are movement loyalists to do, given that men’s formal clothing is now all but restricted to politicians, weddings and funerals? The white nationalists who gathered for a tiki-torch parade in Charlottesville five years ago did the logical thing and wore the contemporary, dressed-down version of suit-and-tie: khakis and polo shirts. You will not replace us! At least not on casual Friday!

Another interesting example here is Madison Cawthorn, the North Carolina congressman most famous for making the claim (which he subsequently said was “exaggerated”) that senior Republicans did cocaine in front of him and had invited him to orgies. He pushes the old-school dress thing to another level. He is sometimes spotted wearing a waistcoat, a piece of clothing that disappeared from the political scene decades ago.

This is nostalgic masculine style in a very pure form (whether a vest is appropriate orgy attire is a separate question). His hair, however – cut close on the sides, long and slicked back on top – is a little too on-the-nose. If you Google “fascist hair cut” you literally get a picture of a Cawthorn-type coif.

Madison Cawthorn at a rally earlier this month. The US congressman’s tendency towards waistcoats is curious © AP

Fellow representative Marjorie Taylor Greene often goes for simple outfits featuring primary colors © Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Female MAGA types have also failed to develop a distinct populist style. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia favors simple dresses and suits in primary colors, taking a page out of – do not tell her – Hillary Clinton’s playbook (though she does go in for dresses more often than Clinton, who likes trousers). It’s all very standard, though unlike Clinton, Greene likes to show off her arms, which are nicely muscled (she’s into CrossFit, or was, until the company publicly distanced itself from her).

Toned guns are also part of the look of Lauren Boebert, the MAGA congresswomen from Colorado. Cawthorne has big biceps, too, and makes sure his suits are tight enough to show it. If there is a populist / nationalist aesthetic, physical strength has a lot to do with it.

Robert Armstrong is the FT’s US financial editor

Email Robert at robert.armstrong@ft.com

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