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Javier Milei, the unclassifiable Argentine politician

The economist who embodies South American Trumpism has advanced in the polls by railing against the political class

National Deputy Javier Milei – leader of ‘La Libertad Avanza’ – at his party headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 9, 2023
National Deputy Javier Milei – leader of ‘La Libertad Avanza’ – at his party headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 9, 2023Erica Canepa (Bloomberg)
Federico Rivas Molina

Anarcho-capitalist, far-right, minarchist, ultra-liberal… the indefinable Argentine economist Javier Milei has revolutionized his country’s politics, rising in the polls with a jumble of ideas that are difficult to classify.

What does Milei have on his mind? Well, he thinks that politicians are “rats” that form a “parasitic caste” that only think about getting rich. The state should only dedicate itself to security and justice; the sale of organs is a consensual commercial transaction and abortion is a property rights issue. “F**king lefties” killed millions of people during the 20th century; according to him, the worst thing that happened to Argentina was Peronism in its Kirchnerist version.

Milei throws ideas around like grenades, waiting for them to go off. He then scavenges through the corpses. His rhetoric seduces the average under-30 voter, who lived through the 2001 hyperinflationary crisis as a child and is now fed up with economic stagnation, a lack of opportunities and, above all, politicians. The polls show that 17% of Argentines would vote for him as president – he’s catching up to the ruling left-wing Frente de Todos coalition (25%) and the center-right opposition Juntos por el Cambio (27%).

“Milei is a war machine against [the political class], a brick thrown against the window of a jewellery store,” sums up Pablo Touzón, a political scientist and director of the consulting firm Escenarios.

Andrés Malamud – principal researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon – says that Milei’s speech is anarcho-capitalist, because “it’s limited to interests and incentives: lowering taxes, reducing state intervention, liberalizing even organ trafficking.” “Technically, he’s also a minarchist. A doctrinaire ultraliberal would be the most understandable”, summarizes Malamud.

Touzón concurs: “He combines a kind of ultraliberal orthodoxy, from [Milton] Friedman and [Friedrich] Von Hayek… he sees himself as a warrior against the state. But he combines that hyperliberal ideology and freedom with elements of the extreme-right.” He’s been compared to Donald Trump, but in a local version that, unlike the US president, “doesn’t defend [protectionism],” adds Touzón.

In a recent interview, when asked about his ideology, he considered himself to be an “anarcho-capitalist, because the state is the enemy. But you live in the real world and you have to have your feet on the ground. In this context, I am a minarchist – that is, someone who believes that the state should only be in charge of security and justice.”

“People realize that we’re getting poorer and that the only ones making progress are the politicians, the parasites.”

And here we return to “the stone against the jewellery store window” – the cry of protest that, 20 years ago, would have sounded from the political left.

“If he has so many voters, it’s not because he’s liberal – it’s because he represents the anti-establishment, as Podemos did in Spain from the left. Here, [in Argentina], it’s done from the right,” explains Touzón.

The young people who supported the Kirchner family (Néstor and Cristina governed from 2003 until 2015) in the past decade today support Milei’s cry of protest, even if they don’t adhere to his economic ideas.

The political secret is to appeal to the basic instincts, under simple banners: liberty, life and property. That’s why Milei loves television sets, where he yells, insults and crushes anyone who criticizes him. His curly black hair is the icon of his campaign. On stage, he wears black leather – fire is lit at the climax of his speeches.

“Milei is a vitalist: he’s not here ‘to guide lambs but to wake up lions,’ as he himself says. This is where he gets his conservative values, such as nationalism and anti-abortionism,” explains Malamud.

In economic matters, Milei accuses John Maynard Keynes of being the father of all the ills of society. When it comes to Argentina, his model is the 1990s, when the convertibility plan established by President Carlos Menem pegged the peso to the dollar and completely ended hyperinflation.

“Convertibility was launched on April 1, 1991. By January of 1993, we were the country with the lowest inflation in the world. I propose the free competition of currencies, full reform of the financial system. Thus, the most probable thing is that Argentines choose the dollar,” Milei often repeats.

The abrupt end of that model in 2001 – with a social outbreak that left some thirty dead and a string of five presidents in less than ten days – brings back bad memories for many Argentines.

Can Milei win the elections in October? It’s too early for an answer. The opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change) – headed by former president Mauricio Macri – hopes that, when push comes to shove, the angry anti-Kirchner vote will go to them. Meanwhile, the Frente de Todos (The Broad Front for All) – the Peronist alliance in government – hopes that Milei will take votes away from the opposition, at least in the first round of the voting.

In any case, Milei has already won. “The impact of his candidacy is that he gets to talk about his issues,” says Touzón. Never before have Argentines discussed the right to bear arms or heard the claim that the Menem administration was successful.

Milei’s ideas will also have a home in the National Congress. If the polls are correct, his alliance will be the third-largest party, with veto power in a minority parliament. Less than two years have passed since he was just a vociferous economist with wild ideas who spiced up the TV shows. Milei is now here to stay.

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