Argentina may be undertaking the world’s most radical experiment in populism

Argentina has just elected a president who calls climate change “a lie of socialism,” considers Pope Francis a “filthy leftist,” and believes that social justice is “an aberrant concept, except for those who favor inequality and theft.” He campaigned with wild theatrics, racing across stages and wielding a chainsaw to symbolize what he wants to do to government. An avowed libertarian, he has promised to abolish a dozen ministries, including those responsible for health, transportation, labor, public works, and education. He says he is “king of a lost world.”

The victory of Javier Milei, until recently a little-known economist who had served only a single term in Congress, is a symptom of global anger at sclerotic political elites. For decades, Argentina has been run by a corrupt and self-interested clique that has failed to provide the nation’s citizens with security or prosperity. This month’s election was a rebellion against that elite, which Milei calls “the caste.”

Milei’s victory is no aberration. Opposition candidates have won 17 of the 18 elections held in Latin America over the last four years. That same impulse is palpable in the United States. This is a main reason Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, and why he may win again next year. When an entrenched political class runs out of energy and loses voter confidence, more people adopt a “throw the bums out” attitude.

Young people were among Milei’s strongest supporters. They do not remember the chaos of Peronism, the harsh military dictatorship of the 1970s, or their country’s struggle to rebuild its democracy. All they know is that life in Argentina is hard, opportunity is rare, and with inflation approaching 150 percent per year, their money loses value every day. This led them to grab the most radical option available.

Leftist politicians were horrified by Milei’s victory. President Gustavo Petro of Colombia called it “sad for Latin America.” Former President Evo Morales of Bolivia said Milei represented “fascism, ultra-conservatism, and neo-liberalism.”

The candidate running against Milei was a product of the old political machine. That was Milei’s greatest asset. “Thanks to God we have new hope,” a 31-year-old woman celebrating Milei’s victory told the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín. She said she voted for him because she works hard but cannot afford a decent life and has considered emigrating. “People have woken up,” she said. “We’re in this together because we can’t take any more. The possibility of living this way for another four years terrorized me.”Others see the election from a wider perspective. “The country has shown that it is now desperate,” wrote the Argentine novelist Martín Caparrós, “because you have to be desperate to vote for someone who has so clearly shown his imbalance and his ignorance.” The Spanish philosopher Rafael Narbona concluded that Argentine voters developed “the impression that left and right differ only slightly, because they both support programs that are antisocial and protect elites. This is not a local but a global phenomenon.”

Like most radical outsiders, Milei faces potent political obstacles. He has little support in Argentina’s Congress. His plans to end public education and state-supported health care will be intensely debated. So will his suggestion that people should be able to sell their organs and that a “free market in babies” should replace state-regulated adoption. Some of his other ideas hark back to the country’s troubled past. He has spoken sympathetically about the military torturers and killers who served the dictatorship of the 1970s and doubts that the death toll from that repression was as high as investigators have alleged.

Milei has been no less militant in foreign policy. Argentina’s current leftist government sees the country as part of the emerging “Global South.” Milei scorns that idea. He has vowed to cancel Argentina’s application to join the BRICS partnership that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. “Our geopolitical alignment is with the United States and Israel,” he said during the campaign. “We will not ally ourselves with Communists.”

Milei takes his inspiration from libertarian economics, which advocates an extreme free-market state in which government plays a minimal role. After being devastated by the death of his dog Conan in 2017, he had the dog cloned and now has three cloned dogs named after his favorite economists: Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Lucas. He calls them “my four-footed sons.”

Argentina is geographically the eighth-largest country in the world and blessed with lavish natural gifts. A century ago, it enjoyed an economy and quality of life comparable to those of France and Canada. Since then it has spiraled steadily downward. Now, feeling betrayed by the traditional left and right, Argentines have opted for a plunge into the unknown. In a world lurching toward angry populism, this may prove the most radical experiment yet.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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