French President Emmanuel Macron. (Lionel Bonaventure/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Editorial Writer

It’s not Maybelline, but maybe Emmanuel Macron isn’t born with it: France reportedly spent 26,000 euros ($30,000) on makeup for its new president in the first three months of his term.

The hefty cost to taxpayers of making the handsome young leader appear even more handsome prompted criticism on French social media that migrated across the pond. So much, Americans said, for the narrative of Macron as a progressive savior: Look how much the boy king’s subjects are spending on his pretty face while the working man suffers.

Well, sure. But the argument that Macron was looking out for the little guy already had blemishes even the finest foundation could not have concealed. The more interesting story Macron’s makeup tells is bigger than him, and it’s bigger than France.

Macron, as many have pointed out, is hardly the first French president to go to aesthetic excess: His predecessors spent more on makeup than he’s on track to do, and let’s not forget François Hollande’s 10,000 euro haircuts.

But the French aren’t alone. Though taxpayers haven’t always footed the bill, U.S. presidents have also been powdering over their pimples since at least Richard Nixon. The people demanded it.

When Nixon faced off against John F. Kennedy in the nation’s first televised presidential debate in 1960, the story goes, the Republican refused to wear makeup. While Nixon, his chin marred with an unfortunate five o’clock shadow, looked sweaty and sickly under the bright lights, Kennedy looked like a star. The majority of those who watched the debate on television said Kennedy won the day. Those who listened on the radio gave it to Nixon. Many claim that night decided the 1960 presidential election.

The modern president, of course, has always performed, from Teddy Roosevelt with his “Bull Moose” machismo to Franklin Roosevelt with his folksy fireside chats. Politicians realized long ago that voters don’t want their president simply to have the right platform, or even simply to say the right things — they want him to act, and now look, the right way while he’s saying them. Politics is performance. Presidents understand that, and they do what they must to win and keep on winning.

But when every successful politician is also a celebrity, and celebrity culture changes, politics is bound to change, too. The television takeover around Nixon’s time placed a higher premium on the cosmetic. Politicians responded by slathering on layers of concealer and, in Bill Clinton’s case, getting haircuts on the tarmac from high-end Beverly Hills stylists named Cristophe. These were only the latest demands of the cult of political celebrity.

Until recently, the consequences of the president-as-performer convention were hardly disastrous. After all, sometimes a politician comes along who has both style and substance (see: Barack Obama). But other times, she has plenty of substance — Hillary Clinton did, whether or not you agree with what she had to say — and little in the way of style. And that, perhaps, is part of the reason for the man we see in the Oval Office today, who is all performer and no president.

Donald Trump, our reality-television president, is the product of a system that has too often prized performance over policy, and he’s a prism through which, suddenly, we can see the problem more clearly than ever before. Ironically, Trump’s makeup does more harm than good, creating raccoon rings around his eyes and infusing his skin with an aura of orange. It reveals what’s rotten underneath instead of covering it up.

Macron deserves to be excoriated for decrying overspending in government and then overspending in government. So do the guys who came before him. But all of us, from the politicians doing the primping to voters demanding they put on a show, should get the same scrutiny. It’s worth taking a hard look at the long history of putting lipstick on a president.