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Hurricane Milei

How can we understand the political shift in Argentina that led to an extreme right-wing outsider coming to power? Here are seven key points for unpacking the unprecedented election.

Argentina's president-elect Javier Milei in October photographed at political rally event ¡VIVA22! in Madrid, Spain. This event was organized by Spain’s far-right political party Vox , (Vox España / Flickr / CC0 1.0 DEED)

Libertarian Javier Milei won the Argentine presidential elections with 55.7 percent of the votes compared to 44.3 percent for Peronist candidate Sergio Massa—a much wider margin than polls had anticipated. In just two years, this outsider, aligned with the global extreme right, went from the television studios where he was known for his eccentric style and messy hair to the Casa Rosada. How did Argentina get into this situation that seemed impossible just months ago? It is the first time in the nation’s history that someone is assuming the presidency without any previous governing experience, without their own mayors or governors, and without significant representation in Congress.

1. Milei, a man without political experience, known for his virulent anti-Keynesian speeches and contempt for the political “caste,” expressed in the Argentine elections a kind of anti-progressive electoral mutiny. This process certainly has local peculiarities, but it expresses a broader phenomenon that transcends the country. The reasons for the nonconformity that led citizens to vote for Milei can be found, in many cases, in economic fundamentals. The libertarian’s appeal is also linked to a global phenomenon: the emergence of alt-right movements with anti-status quo rhetoric that captures social unrest and rejection of political and cultural elites. And the grounds for the expansion of the Right is not always economic. Extreme rights build cleavages based on local realities and are also on the rise in countries with high levels of prosperity. Milei incorporated many narratives of those global radical rights—often in an ill-digested way—such as the claims that climate change is an invention of socialism or "cultural Marxism" or that we live under a kind of progressive neo-totalitarianism.

To a large extent, the Milei phenomenon grew from the bottom up, and for a long time it passed outside the spotlights of political scientists—and the political and economic elites themselves. He managed to color social discontent with a "paleolibertarian" ideology that has no tradition in Argentina (the supply created its own demand). His slogans "The caste is afraid" or "Long live freedom, carajo" were mixed with a rock aesthetic that distanced Milei from the stiffness of the old liberal-conservatives.

His rhetoric connected with a spirit of "Que se vayan todos," (Out with them all) to such an extent that he managed to turn that slogan, launched in 2001 against neoliberal hegemony, into the battle cry of the new right.

2. A mathematical economist, originally a defender of a conventional liberalism, Milei converted by 2013 to the most radical ideas of the Austrian school of economics: those of U.S. economist Murray Rothbard. Milei's political growth was driven by his extravagant style, his foul language against the political "caste," and a set of ultra-radical ideas identified with anarcho-capitalism and distrustful of democracy.

Since 2016, especially through his television appearances, book presentations, YouTube videos, and public classes in parks, Milei has managed to generate a strong attraction in many young people, who began to read various libertarian authors and became his first base of support. After his leap into politics in 2021, when he entered the Chamber of Deputies, he got cross-cutting social support, including in poor and working-class neighborhoods. There, his rhetoric, which seemed to come out of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, connected with popular entrepreneurship and the sometimes radical ambivalence of these sectors with respect to the state. The pandemic and state-level confinement measures also fueled several of the pro-"liberty" dynamics embodied by Milei.

3. The support of Mauricio Macri, president between 2015 and 2019 and leader of the "ala dura" (hard wing) of the Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) coalition, was decisive for Milei heading into the runoff. With the support of Macri and his former security minister Patricia Bullrich (relegated to third place in the first round), Milei's anti-caste rhetoric—which seemed to hit a ceiling of 30 percent of the votes—morphed into "Kirchnerism or liberty," which had been Bullrich's motto. His strategy, from then on, was to express the anti-Kirchnerist vote. On that basis he became strong enough to face Peronism. But, at the same time, Milei became enormously dependent on Macri. The latter saw in Milei's lack of structure and team the possibility of regaining power after the failure of his government: Macrismo will not only give political cadres to the nascent Mileísmo, but the latter will depend on Macri's legislators to achieve a minimum of governability.

4. After the first round, Milei put aside his most radical proclamations of total privatization of the state, as these clashed with the egalitarian and pro-public-service sensibilities of a large part of the electorate. On election day, Milei and his La Libertad Avanza (LLA) achieved impressive results in the strategic province of Buenos Aires, where he finished just over one point below Peronism. The case of Buenos Aires is also symptomatic: for years Peronism made a show of sustaining its political-spiritual bastion there. The small margin prompts a rethinking of Personism’s historical territorial power in the province—already challenged in 2015 by Macri—and, above all, in its most impoverished areas. Milei also swept areas of the country's productive center such as Córdoba, Santa Fe, and Mendoza, in addition to triumphing in almost all provinces. The big question is what is left now of his most radical program, including the dollarization of the economy, which he never finished explaining, or the closure of the Central Bank.

5. Milei managed to reverse his defeat in the presidential debate in his favor. That day, Massa beat him almost by knockout. Massa was the man who knew the state inside out, who knew which camera to look at and who dodged every bullet despite being the minister of economy overseeing more than 140 percent annual inflation. Opposing him was an almost dejected Milei, without debate skills—far from his distinctive charisma at electoral rallies, where he appeared with a chainsaw and called for "kicking impoverishing politicians in the ass." But Massa’s debate victory, as was seen later, was a pyrrhic victory. In addition to appearing like an economy minister who only "faked dementia" or washed his hands regarding his role in the current situation, he represented like no one else the hyper-professionalized politician rejected by a large part of the electorate. During the campaign, Massa embodied a kind of face of the "caste," with the more or less explicit support of leaders of the Radical Civic Union (UCR) and moderate sectors of the center-right, such as the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. Milei ultimately managed to transform anti-progressive "trolling" into a presidential project.

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After his victory on November 19, a crowd spontaneously took to the streets, as if it were a football victory. The vote for Milei combined the resentment vote with a new type of hope, associated with rhetoric that held a strong utopian and messianic charge and no shortage of reactionary statements. Comparing himself to Moses, Milei presented himself as a liberator of the Argentine people from "statism" and "decadence." In just two years, he went from being a kind of Joker who called for rebellion in Gotham City to becoming the nation's unexpected leader. "Mileis’s strategy was a whirlwind, erratic in many moments, disordered, but effective, a binding agent for discontent. People paid with their vote for a ticekt to a new show with Milei as the protagonist," analyst Mario Riorda wrote in an X thread.

How this utopia will land in a government program is the big question right now. Will it be something more than a "Macrismo 2.0"? It is expected that his cabinet will be an assemblage of Mileistas and Macristas, with a central role for Bullrich. (Editor's note: Milei has confirmed that Bullrich will serve as Security Minister, as she did under Macri). We will also have to see what the role of Vice President Victoria Villarruel will be, a lawyer associated with the radical right, including former military men of the dictatorship, and who sees herself reflected in Italian politician Giorgia Meloni.

6. The progressive "micromilitancia'' of recent days—ordinary people staging small acts of activism in public transport and other mass spaces—was not enough to reverse a wave that was more powerful than expected. That micromilitancia, which emphasized Milei's denialism—regarding the crimes of the last dictatorship, but also climate change—and his proposals against social justice (which he considers a monstrosity), sought to offer warning. It did not explain, however, why Massa's project could be attractive, only that a barrier vote was necessary to avoid a loss of rights. Much progressive micromilitancia ended up appealing to a defense of the political system (substantiated in Massa's proposal for "national unity"), against which Milei himself had mounted with his rhetoric "against the caste." On the other hand, rather than highlighting the qualities of the Peronist candidate (in which they often did not believe), those carrying out micromilitancia warned of the "fascist" danger of their opponent. The very weakening of Kirchnerism made these appeals often inaudible or perceived as sermons for a portion of the population determined to vote for "the new"—even when the new could, in fact, be a leap into the void. To this is added the fact that Mileísmo had its own micromilitancia, many of them in digital space.

The election result ended up almost mirroring the victory of Jair Bolsonaro against Fernando Hadad in 2018. The "fear" of Massa's campaign faced the "sickness" of Milei's campaign. Argentine progressivism is now facing a balance of these years, the need for its reinvention in a new political-cultural context: a potential reactionary wave. "These elections do not represent only a defeat of Kirchnerism, Unión la Patria [Massa’s coalition], or Peronism in general. They are above all a defeat of the Left. A political, social, and cultural defeat of the Left, of its values, of its traditions, of the rights conquered, of its credibility," wrote the historian Horacio Tarcus.

7. Will this triumph of Milei entail a cultural change in the country in line with its ultra-capitalist ideology? Will it be able to transform electoral support into effective institutional power? Will this new right, a product of the joining of libertarians and Macristas, be able to govern "normally"?

Milei overtook Juntos por el Cambio, and he depended on Macri and Bullrich to get the votes for the second round. Milei won the presidency; Macri gained political power. Will he be able to make the radical adjustment he promised? What will be the strength of resistance—unions and social movements—against a government that will be very much to the right of Macri's and that promises shock therapy? Will Milei be able to build a social base to sustain its reforms?

After 10 p.m. on election day, November 19, the president-elect addressed his followers, regaining a tone of speaking from the barricades and achieving a historical feat. He introduced himself as the "first liberal-libertarian president in the history of humanity," referring to himself in relation to 19th-century liberalism, and repeated that in his project there is “no lugar para tibios” or no place for lukewarm people. His followers responded by singing "Out with them all, may there be no one left."

This article was originally published in Spanish by Nueva Sociedad.

Mariano Schuster is Nueva Sociedad’s digital platform editor. He was editor-in-chief of the Argentine socialist publications La Vanguardia and Nueva Revista Socialista. He collaborates with media such as Letras Libres and Le Monde diplomatique, among others. He is a contributing author to ¿Tiene porvenir el socialismo? compiled by Mario Bunge and Carlos Gabetta (Eudeba, Buenos Aires, 2013).

Pablo Stefanoni is editor-in-chief of Nueva Sociedad. He is coauthor, with Martín Baña, of Todo lo que necesitás saber sobre la Revolución rusa (Paidós, 2017) and author of ¿La rebeldía se volvió de derecha? (Siglo Veintiuno, 2021).

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