PARIS -- An intriguing social phenomenon prompted a horrific killing spree in Santa Barbara, California, last week, and the same phenomenon might help explain the surprising results of last weekend's European Parliament elections.
The suspected Santa Barbara killer, 22-year old Elliot Rodger, left behind a 141-page diatribe and multiple online videos expressing frustration over a failure to score with the opposite sex, despite ticking what he considered to be all the right boxes: a BMW, nice clothes and good looks. He couldn't figure out why that wasn't enough. Worse, why would college women instead gravitate towards loudmouth jerks?
I can attest that women will instinctively choose a loudmouth jerk over a fop -- at least until a non-jerk with discernible alpha male characteristics materializes. Why? Because jerks have many of the characteristics that approximate leadership qualities. In college especially, it's difficult to make a distinction between a jerk and a leader, if only for lack of professional and life experience.
European voters just exhibited a similar preference.
On the same weekend as the Santa Barbara killings, the European Parliament held its elections. Extreme parties were elected in England and France: Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Marine Le Pen's ultra-nationalist National Front. French political-strategist friends have been telling me that they can't understand why the public would vote for so-called extremists over politicians who have gone to the trouble of crafting and propagating the perfect focus-group-tested messages. In short, the political fops don't know why the loudmouth jerks are getting all the girls when the more moderate parties possess all the trappings of the perfect gentleman.
The French craved the alpha-male leadership of former President Nicolas Sarkozy in the wake of President Jacques Chirac's foppish leadership -- right up until Sarkozy overshot into perceived jerk territory. When Sarkozy had exasperated the voting public with his perceived political hyperactivity, "Mr. Normal" Francois Hollande scored for Team Fop on the rebound. (That's a critical caveat: An elected jerk becomes vulnerable if he turns into a fop, or vice versa.)
Hollande's military intervention in Africa under humanitarian pretext initially exemplified leadership, but now that the media focus has turned to domestic matters, he is boring the French electorate to the point that voters are willing to settle for anything that even remotely approximates the leadership qualities of engagement, passion, courage and outspokenness.
We're living in a period that arguably represents the pinnacle of flash dominating substance. Saying the right things can get a politician elected to office -- or even awarded a pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize before he can get around to reigniting the Cold War and racking up snafus in international diplomacy. A great many modern-day celebrities achieve fame by being present on television in some capacity while being shoved down the throat of the collective public through publicity efforts, rather than by using actual talent to gain access to a public platform.
But what if a politician could leverage both substance and style effectively?
If there's any politician on the international stage who has mastered the ability to approximate leadership via superficial trappings until the context arises to transition into a substantial leadership posture, it's Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the offseason, when there isn't much going on politically, he doesn't exhaust the public with needless Fidel Castro-style speeches or hyperactivity. Instead, he simply drags around a cameraman while he performs various acts of manliness, from fishing to swimming. The resulting images are sufficiently close on a psychological and visceral level to that of a strong leader, albeit in the absence of the context to really prove his meddle. In this phase, Putin is no different from the star quarterback benching his body weight in the gym during the offseason. While there are some people for whom that's sufficient, the exceptional mastery comes from being able to score a touchdown when the opportunity presents itself. It's the transition from image to action where our most charismatic leaders often fail.
When conflict materialized in Ukraine, Putin put away the photo-shoot trappings and shifted into a higher gear with decisive actions and blunt, unequivocating talk that wasn't read off a teleprompter.
Regardless of what one might think of Putin's politics, he has succeeded in exploiting human psychological tendencies -- whether domestic or international -- by transitioning seamlessly between style and substance in near-perfect accordance with context.
Until other leaders understand this inherent psychology, we in the West will continue to get a revolving door of underwhelming fops and loudmouth jerks, punctuated by the occasional political unicorn: an authentic leader who can act and speak the part.