We use cookies
This website uses cookies in order to improve your browsing experience. Read more on our cookie policies.
Accept
Refuse
The anarcho-astrologer
Federico Perelmuter
09 April 2024
published in Issue Five

Javier Milei, literarily considered

A papier-mâché Jorge Luis Borges at rest, Desmadres literary festival, Buenos Aires. Photos by author.

The day before the literary festival began, the « anarcho-capitalist paleolibertarian » Javier Milei won Argentina’s open primaries by surprise. By noon the following day, Monday 14 August, the Argentine peso lost 25 percent of its value. Something changed that Sunday, though nobody knew what, how much or for how long — least of all Milei, caught unawares by the results but ecstatically ready.

Before the primaries, Milei was a loud but ineffectual representative in Argentina’s lower house of congress, known for his inexplicable hair and mutton chops. He never introduced a bill of his own (though he co-signed nearly thirty) and gave away his congressional salary to random people on social media every month. An annoying troll only ever electorally competitive in the city of Buenos Aires, where scrawny and awkward libertarian types with porn addictions and degrees in engineering or business management clustered. We (progressives with humanities or social science degrees from the kind of backgrounds that immure us from the worst of the economy’s fluctuations) determined that they would be Milei’s only supporters, that he would never seize hold of our vaunted fantasy: « the people ». We invoked « the people » with the confident solemnity of those who have never truly lost but who can recall loss’s contours, its representations, the stories we received of past crises.

On that unseasonably warm winter day, Milei won with the support of rich and poor, wealthy and working class alike. That the rich voted for Milei, with their deep-seated anti-Peronism, was not unexpected. Support for Milei from the poor and working class, particularly the young, was the surprise. As a block, they had voted reliably for the incumbent left over the last two decades, but now proved their disenchantment with a progressive movement that spent four years arguing with itself and attempting to revive a failed economic program.

His willingness to drown in the bath of his beliefs gave him an advantage, especially online.

Milei was running to succeed Alberto Fernández — or, more pointedly, to fill the vacuum that Fernández’s presidency had left. That vacuum is worth describing. Fernández’s vice-president was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (no relation), herself a former president from 2007-2015, and still the country’s most significant and polarizing political figure. She is the widow of Néstor Kirchner — initiator of Kirchnerism, Argentina’s 21st-century progressive Peronist movement, and himself president from 2003-2007. Fernández de Kirchner, after defeat in 2015, orchestrated a strategy for the next election, with herself as vice-president, and Alberto Fernández as president. But after the 2019 election that brought them to power — and through the COVID-19 crisis — their alliance melted down. The more centrist president was often at odds with the Kirchnerist vice-president. Their government’s economic policy failed, leading to accelerating inflation and worsening indicators. Fernández effectively vanished from view. Milei seized the opportunity, and confirmed to the outgoing government’s former supporters that the project they’d once endorsed as policyforward and innovative had in fact become a stale and corrupt tumefaction.

Milei’s proposals were bold and a little ridiculous, but his willingness to drown in the bath of his beliefs gave him an advantage, especially online. He issued no apologies for his ideological fervor, his hatred of « zurdos de mierda » (piece of shit leftists). Dollarize and deregulate the economy, slash spending, close the central banks, privatize state-owned companies and kill the oh-so-vile deficit: this was the pitch.

His supporters defended that pitch as an « experiment » with an unknowable outcome, but Milei’s proposals were not new (as those familiar with the Washington Consensus or the last half-century’s hegemonic neoliberal project know). He cited theorists like a sophomore in economics: neoliberal economists Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Lucas, Ludwig von Mises and Gary Becker, as well as the paleolibertarian Murray Rothbard, the nowrediscovered prophet of the Trump era. Softer versions of Milei’s policies defined the Argentine 1990s — though after those policies led to a 2001 economic meltdown, they became political hemlock. (During the worst of the 2001 crisis, poverty rates climbed to around 90 percent; over thirty people were killed in protests.) Indeed, the president who put those policies in place (a Peronist! — lest you think their hands are clean) only did so two years after taking office in what is now remembered as an unforgivable betrayal.

Maybe Milei’s near-mystical futurology had the spark of newness, but his injunctions to make Argentina anew were themselves a regression, an explicit promise to turn the clock back to the late nineteenth century when Argentina was, per his account, a global power with a burgeoning economy supported by a (nineteenth-century) liberal constitution. That perfect arrangement was soiled by « collectivism », which in Milei’s vocabulary includes everything from the welfare state to unions to Keynesian economics to Peronism to populist leftism. Never mind that Argentina’s purported nineteenth-century glory relied on a concentrated agricultural export sector run by latifundists who also ruled the country through rampant corruption, or that most people then were poor and illiterate. Facts notwithstanding, Milei asserted that a century of collectivism was the critical explanation for Argentina’s transformation into an inflationary, crisis-ridden time-bomb, and the claim stood.

Milei had few outright supporters or fullthroated believers, but the primaries confirmed that all he needed to do to win was to persuade enough people that he could win — and that he bore no resemblance to the incumbents. Against him stood Sergio Massa, the sitting government’s economic minister (formerly a center-right Peronist and outspoken anti-Kirchnerist), whom Milei could easily deem a hypocritical « pancake », part of Argentina’s « political caste ».

Technocracy cannot vanquish faith.

Explanations for the election outcome abounded in the following days. Hatred? Resentment? Anger at a political status quo incapable of assimilating any critiques? A cataclysmic economic situation? The New York Times explained Milei as a « mini-Trump ». Remarkably, Milei was the first candidate in history to win afterpromising a painful « adjustment », the sort of anti-inflationary economic shock therapy that tends to make presidents unpopular with everyone but the wealthy and the International Monetary Fund. None of the explanations felt entirely right, especially not the emotional ones — although I will admit that the honesty with which Milei presented his awful ideas briefly charmed me. He appeared to simply know more, to espouse deeper beliefs and have a greater understanding of the world. His vision was clear, and he would not budge. As was the case with Trump, arguing Milei back into the « normal » political spectrum was insufficient — the only way to combat his radicalism was with a radicalism of one’s own, with a comparably rabid conviction that was nowhere to be seen. Technocracy cannot vanquish faith.

Nobody quite like Milei, with his transparent market radicalism and anti-political je ne sais quoi, has ever had a real political career in Argentina, much less been a serious presidential candidate. I felt compelled to pursue an explanation, having so severely misdiagnosed the present conjuncture. What distinguished him, I thought, were distinctly literary elements: rhetoric, speech, tone, look, symbolism — plus a theoretical corpus, at the head of which stood Rothbard. My political analysis has always been literary; literature is all I know. Was literature itself failing to help me make sense of Milei or had I simply misinterpreted the signs, told myself some fairytale?

The day after Milei’s upset in the primaries, I found myself at a literary festival, which seemed a perfect venue for absolving my analytical sins. The festival’s name was Desmadres, in reference to a slang term for chaos or upheaval. That the name could mean an « excess either in words or deeds », or « conduct of oneself without respect or measure », or « excessive revelry », suggested that perhaps Milei’s own intensities could be understood under the umbrella of Argentine literature. The festival’s refrain of « disruption » boded well, and the festival’s self-named magazine gave an entire section to the concept. Milei, too, was disruptive, unafraid of sawing through everything in his path. An electric chainsaw was his campaign symbol.

a mascot wearing a gigantic papier-mâché head of Jorge Luis Borges

Of course, the festival was not planned with Milei in mind. Its original aim was to « disrupt » and reactivate the permanently morose notion of « Latin Americanism », which had inspired so much literature and political fervor. I first conceived of this essay, in fact, as a crónica of that festival — heir to a noble genre in which the young writer attends a symposium for grownups and writes, with ambivalent admiration, of the great scribblers and their proclamations. Literary congresses punctuate Latin American literary and political history, always conflicted and derailed by intra-leftist squabbling yet still somehow clear-sighted, rarely concluding with out a statement denouncing the fascist threat of the day. Literature mattered to politics in those days, when the occasional writer was still a diplomat or cabinet member, and the right book was sufficient cause for exile. Alas, Desmadres, like most literary festivals today, offered little beyond odes and paeans to reading’s value, as if anyone there needed them.

The festival had something like a mascot in the form of a staffer wearing a gigantic papier-mâché head of Jorge Luis Borges, walking around and offering two-minute literary workshops: one minute to tell him your idea, one minute for feedback from « Borges », with a free book in exchange for your troubles. Everyone agreed that the head failed to resemble the unseeing holy ghost of Argentine literature, but he hovered over the festival’s many events, as if to remind us to remember askew, to invoke the past only as a joke, to resist the past’s spells, to « disrupt » our memory in search of something new, like Klee’s angel of history, but blind and with a droopy eye.

But it was Milei who haunted the festival above all. In the opening speeches, María Fernanda Ampuero, a brilliant Ecuadorian journalist and writer, and the festival’s star invitee, insisted on the political value of writing. She pleaded, in tears, with her Argentine audience to avoid becoming like Ecuador — a dollarized economy, a hard-right that privatized everything and reduced the country to the whims of foreign companies and the US Federal Reserve. « Don’t make our mistake, » she said. Her words filled me with fear; rage soon followed. Had Argentines forgotten the traumas of the dictatorship, its brutality? The writer, Ampuero said, must be a bulwark of truth: challenging received wisdom, revealing the bodies hidden in the fascists’ drywall. She stood alone in her relentless politicization. Speakers, even in the three-part series on « Latin American Literature Today » returned to Milei constantly but usually without insight.

I don’t blame Desmadres. In Argentina and throughout Latin America, states have systematically starved literary and artistic ecosystems for decades, while an evaporating press eliminated outlets that helped writers sustain themselves and develop major audiences. Books themselves show physical symptoms of hunger as they grow skinnier, sleeker with each passing year. In a system that forces writers to live off the occasional translation and the teaching of writing workshops, fearlessness becomes impossible not just publicly, but conceptually. The great congresses of yore, populated by bold truth-tellers, were nowhere to be found. The answers I wanted, as much concerning the power of literature as the rise of diet fascism, were nowhere to be found.

Books show physical symptoms of hunger as they grow skinnier, sleeker with each passing year.

After Desmadres ended, Milei placed second in the general elections, close enough to Massa to trigger a runoff election a month later. Analysts were tentative at first — had Milei’s furious rise stalled out? The answer was soon clear: Milei allied himself with the center-right, his much-hated « caste », which had run an atrocious campaign but could still get him enough votes to cross the halfway mark and gain the presidency. He sold the alliance as « joining the new Argentina », side-stepping accusations of hypocrisy with a sly hint of tactical open-mindedness: even the hyper-ideologue could play politics. With a week left until the election, I felt hopeful: minor politicians, along with victims of the 1976-1983 dictatorship’s genocidal programs of political repression, loudly and publicly voiced their displeasure with Milei, framing him as a threat to the Argentina’s hard-won, post-dictatorial democratic consensus — and also as a freak. I thought Massa was confident and persuasive, knowledgeable and rational, even if his centrist politics and « normal family man » schtick failed to charm.

On the Thursday before the election, I added this to my draft: « The sense is that Massa will win, but nobody in Massa’s camp wants to acknowledge this (smartly), because it could relax them. » About a pre-runoff debate some days prior, I wrote: « Milei underperformed, relying less on concrete proposals or thoughtful analysis than on playing the ideologically fervorous fanatic, cosplaying his own ideological commitment to ushering in ‘change’ and getting rid of the ‘political caste’ — i.e. his Deep State, though Milei seems less paranoid than Trump because Argentina is smaller and stupider, more conspiratorial and more concerned with corruption than the US is. » These observations, particularly concerning Massa’s demeanor, were not entirely wrong but, in retrospect, born of misinterpretation: in fact Massa wasn’t confident he would win but was feigning self-assurance, which in turn read as arrogance and, to those not deceived by the act, only revealed the insecurity of an establishment candidate who should win but knows he won’t. Massa’s talking points, so soothing to me in their thoughtfulness at first, came off (to the unenchanted) as insincere and last-minute, indeed outright panicky in the face of a rout. Milei, by contrast, was relaxed and never contradicted himself. He reacted to Massa’s sucker-punch oppo research with level-headed contempt. It came down, for many, to a choice between sincere believers and well-schooled professionals, movement leaders against technocrats. Distrust for the latter did Milei’s work for him.

The nineteenth century was Milei’s objective, and thus our future.

Milei won the runoff by almost ten percent of the vote. My entire family, really everyone I grew up around, voted for him, less out of ideological concordance (my dad was calling Milei a « beast » a year ago) than hatred for a government they perceived as corrupt and ineffective, and, worst of all, clientelist and prone to handouts. The election was a massacre; the kind one pretends, in the moment, to withstand with dignity yet soon finds has left something unmade. Kirchnerism, many agreed, was caput.

Massa conceded before results were even available, and Milei pronounced his victory speech from a grim, grey industrial stage decorated with Argentine flags and an LED seal that read « Presidente Electo/República Argentina » and featured the casa rosada, our presidential palace, as a White House imitation. Milei began with his face downturned, his voice shaky with sinister, childlike excitement. He referenced Juan Bautista Alberdi, the nineteenth-century liberal who wrote Argentina’s 1853 constitution. The nineteenth century was Milei’s objective, and thus our future. To « the forces of chaos », by which he meant the still-powerful network of unions and social organizations that will challenge his government’s policies on the streets, he threatened (a pointed quotation of Perón, no less): « everything inside of the law; nothing outside of the law. » He then left the stage, and addressed his followers directly as they waved Gadsden and Argentina flags. I turned off my computer, realizing I’d called every single election wrong.

I set out to understand Milei less as a political phenomenon (as we’ve established, I’m a poor analyst) than as a literary, aesthetic development. Only in that territory are his specificity and « disruptiveness » most clear. He insists, for instance, on the « aesthetic superiority » of his movement, but what is that aesthetic? Is it the AI-generated images of gigachad Milei with sharp cheekbones, a square jaw, and (his own) azure eyes? An idealized and euphoric white masculinity so banal as to be insulting? His own aesthetic background, meanwhile, I’m not sure I want to understand either. As far as I can tell, Milei grew up on a heavy dose of the Rolling Stones and schmaltzy tango show tunes.

However ill-advised, I returned to my literary-critical ways, à la recherche of forebears or archetypes that could select and illuminate which fibers of the Argentine soul he had touched. The first and most obvious candidate, genre-wise, was the dictator novel. Latin America’s penchant for dictatorial figures, most of them right-wing and many supported by foreign powers and their companies, has spurred a rich tradition of dictator novels. Milei is obviously no dictator, but the dictator is the right’s paradigmatic figure in the region. Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) is likely the most familiar for international readers (though many rather dictatorial figures appear throughout his fiction). Augusto Roa Bastos’ I, The Supreme (1974), another great dictator novel from the Latin American Boom, depicted the solipsistic meanderings of Paraguay’s nineteenth century « perpetual dictator », José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia. Various dictators from Cuba’s history are blurred into Alejo Carpentier’s Recourse to the Method (1978), which both contemplated and mocked their lives and legacies. The genre’s high watermark, though, was earlier: Miguel Ángel Asturias’ El Señor Presidente (1945), which obliquely depicted the reign of the early twentieth-century Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera.

Argentina’s own foundational dictator novels were written and published in exile during the mid-nineteenth century, in the era of the country’s first dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas. The dictator-figures in both Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo (1845) — as much a political-theoretical treatise as a novel (its subtitle was Civilization or Barbarism) — and José Marmol’s Amalia (1851) were violent warlords, anti-modern and repressive. The novels were explicitly critical of Rosas, who had held a totalizing power thanks in large part to his paramilitary cadres, and who persecuted, assassinated or exiled his opposition. A more recent canon of dictatorship novels depicted life under the 1976-1983 regime. Most recent among them, Martín Kohan’s Confession (2023) takes a slant biographical look at a young Jorge Rafael Videla, future supreme leader, from the perspective of a young girl enamored with him from afar.

an effete intellectual type, unshowered and unkempt

Milei doesn’t resemble these dictators, not really. We all suspect that he hungers for absolute power and has a violent streak and anticommunist fervor that would make Pinochet and Videla blush. He invokes, without hesitation, Sarmiento’s opposition between civilization and barbarism — a genocidal threat to indigenous targets of the nascent state’s settler-colonial campaign. Yet Milei remains, unlike Juan Manuel de Rosas, only a president (for now), and with a congressional minority that will make him reliant on negotiation to pass legislation. And where other dictators sported short, orderly hair, spotless uniforms and stern, self-controlled expressions bred by years of military discipline, Milei is an effete intellectual type, unshowered and unkempt, who wears the same ill-fitting leather jacket everywhere and rants about economic theory and the ills of corruption: awful, but still a politician within a democratic electoral system trying to accrue votes.

Those dictators I mentioned professed a fervent and conservative Catholicism (however unreflected that devotion was in their deeds), but Milei, while deeply religious, is weirder. He was raised Catholic but has picked a fight with the (Argentine!) Pope, accusing Francis of « endorsing theft » and of « an affinity for communism ». And Milei has made much of his attraction to Judaism, which fits oddly in a « Latin America » so historically intertwined with Enlightenment-era anti-Protestantism as well as antisemitism. He has spent years studying with the Argentine Jewry’s most conservative rabbis, frequently cites the Torah in his speeches, and defends Israel with a fervor unrivaled even by US Republicans.

With dictators out of contention, I expanded my search beyond politics: I needed freaks with ambition, a little stupid but convinced of their genius and with a healthy dose of paranoia. The answer came to me in a dream or in a Zoom call with my editor, whichever you prefer: Milei reminds me not of a dictator but a character out of Roberto Arlt’s classic novels The Seven Madmen (Los siete locos, 1929) and The Flamethrowers (Los lanzallamas, 1931). Milei would be very much at home in Arlt’s world. Arlt’s protagonist, Remo Erdosain, is a lowlife, fired for embezzlement and left by his wife. To pay back the money he owes, he gets a loan from a new friend, Heffner, a brothel owner whom we will come to know as the Melancholic Ruffian. Erdosain is also an inventor, convinced that his great idea — the « copper rose », literally a copper-plated rose — will one day bring him fame and fortune. Through Heffner, Erdosain meets the Astrologer, a schemer who dreams of a New World Order involving chemical weapons, global enslavement, a sprawling network of brothels, and above all a violent revolution, all in service of what the Astrologer calls « industrial mysticism ». The Astrologer delivers seductive and morbid disquisitions about global power, about the evil order that keeps him and his associates under its thumb, about the roles to be played in the transformed universe to come. Erdosain, persuaded, joins the small sect and carries out its bidding, kidnapping an associate to extort him and fund their revolution.

I needed freaks with ambition, a little stupid but convinced of their genius, with a healthy dose of paranoia.

The Seven Madmen centers on a group of impoverished paranoiac strivers in the suburbs of peripheral Argentina. Arlt’s novel has them embody the tensions of a nascent working class, molded by modernization and the vexed promises of progress into a waylaid, spiritual hollowness. His characters, tortured by the emptiness of a hostile society governed by oligarchs in which social mobility is almost impossible, swing between communism, fascism and despair. Ideological extremes are the only conceivable outcome for them.

When the Astrologer babbles on admiringly and with confidence about the US’ unrivaled industrial base and weapons arsenals, and about its importance to his future revolution, a reader today, a century later, would recognize Milei: not so much in content, but in form. Both worship the US as a noble and great power; and both worship the machine and, inevitably, capital itself — even though neither is actually a capitalist: their mystique lies in an idealism only made more moving by its pathos. Milei, like the Astrologer, was once obscure and cultish. Milei and the Astrologer share, I think, a certain ressentiment, a desire to upend an economic order that they believe betrayed them. Both are darkly charming, with a bottomless well of technical knowledge put forth in seductively spiritual, near-mesmerist guise. We could even call the Astrologer a wannabe dictator and master manipulator, though this skill Milei does not quite share. Though neither is quite a fascist, neither seems wholly opposed to the idea.

The Argentine writer Juan José Becerra perceptively described Milei as a Bovarist, a man who’s always reading and is utterly consumed by the worlds of the literature he ingests, incapable of divorcing the literary and the real. But the « literature » he ingests, the stuff that fuels Milei’s fantasies, isn’t romance novels or chivalric stories but rather economic theory of the neoliberal, Austrian variety: the more it reduces people to utility maximizers, the better. In this, too, he resembles the Astrologer — and Erdosain, for that matter: so utterly consumed by engineering manuals for the crafting of poison gas, electrolysis baths or tunneling drills that they cannot apprehend the far-fetched absurdity of their schemes. Theory is their world. The tragedy of Milei and the Astrologer, we might say, lies precisely in their refusal to look up from their books.

The tragedy of Milei and the Astrologer lies in their refusal to look up from their books.

They have a certain agonized Europeanness in common, too. The Astrologer regards himself as a defender of the West; part of the tragedy of Arlt’s characters, as the legendary Argentine critic Ismael Viñas put it, is that « this man is European, hence the source of his particular drama: he is not entirely European ». Milei, likewise, insists on Argentina’s stature as a Western stronghold within the broader barbarism of South America. Beyond the obvious white supremacism of such an idea, this too is a consequence of a maladjusted perception. Milei, like the Astrologer, longs to change a world he knows is unjust, a world that he resents for the ill fortune it has granted him. Milei believes — like Emma Bovary and Alonso Quijano — that his world is no different from the European and American worlds around which his intellectual pantheon crafted their theories. The Astrologer, for his part, sees no reason that his distance from the centers of capital should constrain his plan for global domination. Never central but unwilling to accept their world-historical fate far from the center. Nothing unites Milei to the Astrologer like their lack of self-awareness.

Inauguration day announcement, posted to Javier Milei's social media accounts, 5 December 2023

Milei’s paradoxical coup de grace was to present himself as a raving madman.

The literary likeness stretches only so far. Only by understanding the limits of Arlt’s Astrologer’s resemblance to Milei can one understand the latter’s radicalism and pragmatic effectiveness. The Astrologer’s schemes fail, after all, while Milei’s, so far, have not. The Seven Madmen ends with the revolutionary plot dismantled by the police, Erdosain dead by his own hand, and the Astrologer having to flee, never to be seen again. This ending does not seem relevant to Milei. Indeed Milei becomes Milei precisely when he stops resembling the Astrologer — when he leaves the underground, becomes official, the leader of a bona fide movement whose theories cease to be the angry rumblings of a misguided proletarian intellectual to become state policy.

Like the Astrologer, Milei has the air of an auto-didact: he only discovered Rothbard’s ideas in 2014 and adopted his current persona thereafter. But he does have a degree, and has published papers and books (which he’s accused of having plagiarized). Nor are his theories particularly esoteric or obscure, but rather the orthodox IMF / Wall Street / US-foreign-policyestablishment special, meant to guarantee financial capital’s ease of access to onceprotected economies. The Astrologer’s ideas, meanwhile, have nobody’s endorsement except his own, are wholly the product of a cynical and unorthodox worldview, not to mention misreadings of Marx and engineering manuals.

Milei’s paradoxical coup de grace, his rhetorical stepstool into power, was his ability to cast a turgid policy agenda in a tolerable, even positive light precisely by presenting himself as a raving madman. To be clear: he’s no Astrologer, no basement fascist genius, but an economics textbook with the volume turned up to eleven (perhaps Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, in the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s 2004 « Scholar’s Edition ») with some spittle and a prayer thrown in for effect.

Yet what Arlt’s novel does capture is the interstitial agony of those, like Milei and the Astrologer, incapable of apprehending fully their own marginality, fated to exist outside of their own space-time and unwilling to acquiesce to reality. Arlt’s sympathies for The Astrologer and Erdosain — scorned, stupid dreamers — might come in part from his own literary philosophy, explained in the foreword to The Flamethrowers: amidst « the noises of a social edifice that is unavoidably crumbling », Arlt argued, one cannot write « a novel, like Flaubert’s, composed of panoramic canvases. » Rather, « we shall create our own literature, not by conversing continuously about literature but by writing in proud solitude books that contain the violence of a ‘cross’ to the jaw. Yes, one book after another, and ‘let the eunuchs jest’ » (« y que los eunucos bufen »). Arlt’s admiration for his dreamers comes from a commitment, put simply, to do something about the debacle — and in that sense, Milei, too, has earned my begrudging respect. Milei, too, desires the creation of something beautiful, however misguided, to remedy the profound cosmic injustice of which he perceives himself and « good Argentines » to be the victims. That Milei’s definition of beauty stems from a set of reductive equations is not his tragedy but ours.

With Milei as president, theories must evolve into policies, the ultimate test of Milei’s Bovarism: either he will fail, and once more resemble the Astrologer, or succeed, and dissolve my comparison into thin air. He announced, soon after the runoff, that the dollarization he championed (what he called « freedom of currency choice ») was not in fact viable, nor was it viable to close Argentina’s central bank. Those were his campaign’s signatures, gone before he even arrived at the office. Meanwhile, Mauricio Macri — anti-Peronist president from 2015-2019 and informal leader of the center-right coalition with which Milei allied himself to win the runoff — had his men replace many of Milei’s closest supporters. Milei even named Luis Caputo — finance secretary, then minister, and then president of the central bank during Macri’s presidency — as his economic minister, the number two position in the Argentine government. As an exercise for my readers, I will leave you to guess Caputo’s beliefs from his CV: he was a high-ranking trading executive at JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank in Latin America for two decades. He also worked for the World Bank and managed a sizeable investment fund.

Other staffing decisions? Milei will reduce the number of ministries from 22 to eight, folding many — including employment, childhood and family, and education — into the « human capital » ministry. To run that beast, he appointed an inexperienced former yoga teacher and « journalist » with a two-year degree in « family science » from a hyper-conservative opus dei university. All in all, par for the course; in the meantime, we awaited Inauguration Day.

Inauguration Day, 10 December, arrived quickly. Milei broke precedent at his inauguration by speaking outside of congress like an American, facing his supporters and with his back to parliament. His policy and staffing announcements also felt like copies of the US, from inventing the role of press secretary to communicating via Twitter press releases. The releases featured frequent errors, like thanking James Cameron for his kind words instead of British Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

A guy in head-to-toe chainsaw costume was struggling to turn on his machinery, but gladly posed for me.

I made up my mind to attend. Before the big day, Milei traveled to New York, escorted by the wealthy businessmen who bankrolled his campaign. His first stop was the grave of the great Chabad rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. He also met with Wall Street executives and, afterwards, Jake Sullivan, a Biden advisor who looked comically uncomfortable standing next to our president-elect. Unfortunately, they failed to accomplish their trip’s central mission: securing a loan.

Meanwhile, a crypto scam remained on Milei’s Instagram bio, and he populated his grid with AI illustrations of himself with his « children »: four English mastiffs named after libertarian economists (Murray [Rothbard], Milton [Friedman], Robert and Lucas [Robert Lucas]) cloned from a prior, now dead dog named Conan.

I took the bus to downtown Buenos Aires and walked towards Congress in the summer heat. I was soon handed a fake hundred-dollar bill with Milei’s face on it and a flyer for an antiabortion march, while a small newsstand sold two editions (freedom of choice!) of the same essay collection on Milei. I ended up walking with two teenagers, both dressed head-to-toe in Argentina gear, who said this was their first election and their first march; « finally », they said, Argentina would progress. A guy in a head-to-toe chainsaw costume was struggling to turn on his machinery, but gladly posed for me.

The guy in the chainsaw costume who gladly posed

Bolsonaristas and anti-Maduro Venezuelans were out in force, and knockoff MAGA hats were abundant, as was Milei’s own knockoff version, which read « May the forces of heaven be with us », gold on dark blue. Famous attendees included Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom Milei thanked (and hugged) multiple times, as well as Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, and regional neighbors Gabriel Boric, Chilean president, and Luis Lacalle Pou, from Uruguay. Lula, whom Milei had called a « corrupt communist » even though Brazil is Argentina’s largest trading partner, was a notable absence.

Trying to stay in the shade I encountered a stern old man in his mid-sixties wearing full military garb, including a perfectly fitted beret and a yellow handkerchief, declaiming to those around him. I asked him for his thoughts. He introduced himself as a Marine who, though he did not vote for Milei in the first round, now supported him « absolutely ». He wanted « change once and for all, and no more cattle-raiding in my country », referencing corruption. I noticed a Malvinas patch on his arm, indicating that he had fought in the 1982 war for the islands, which pitted a weakened dictatorship’s novice, unequipped military against Margaret Thatcher and the UK’s might. Though Argentines loathe Thatcher almost unanimously, Milei has praised her, an especially bold choice considering that his vice-president’s own father fought in the conflict. The old Marine brushed off Milei’s praise for Thatcher (who remained his « number one enemy ») as being merely about « leadership ». When I asked him if Milei’s extremism gave him any doubts, he quickly rebuked me by affirming that « we are here for that », implying that should Milei take any detours, or misbehave, at least some of his supporters may abandon him. The first months of Milei’s presidency, he acknowledged with a chuckle, would be « extremely tough ». The task at hand, painful though it may be, was unavoidable.

The marine who did not vote for Milei in the first round

Proceedings began and the noon sun blared its heat down. Milei’s car drove him to the door of congress, where he waved to a rather unimpressive crowd before quickly heading inside. The ceremony itself was brisk and unexceptional. For those of us outside, it appeared on giant monitors, but I was distracted from a good chunk of it because an angry gaggle of men had chased a scared teenage pickpocket onto the roof of a television van. People yelled insults, and one man tried to yank him down by the pants while another climbed up to push him. Punches rained down before the police finally intervened to take him away. As the men retrieved their possessions from the pickpocket’s backpack, discarded and forgotten in the scuffle, I looked up as Milei began to speak with tears in his eyes.

He insisted that a new era of « peace, prosperity, growth and development, freedom and progress » had arrived for Argentina. He rehearsed every single talking point from his campaign (sans dollarization). Argentina’s coasts, he claimed, had been « beacons of the West » in the early twentieth century, when millions of migrants arrived, but then collectivism, alas, began eroding the nation’s soul and once-vibrant economy. The West, for its part, is uninterested in what defense Milei can offer it, as the reception of his speech at Davos in January 2024 would confirm. At the inaugration, nothing proved the foolishness of his claim like the thin list of NATO attendees: unremarkable functionaries from France and the United Kingdom, Spain’s weak king, and US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

I looked up as Milei began to speak with tears in his eyes.

There followed Milei’s enumeration of his « inheritance », a concept that has obsessed most incoming Argentine governments as they play hot potato with our nightmare economy: from unrealistic inflation numbers to budgetary deficit, a mounting national debt, a state-determined exchange rate, an economy stagnant since 2011, rampant drug trafficking, decaying education and the humiliation of security forces. For Milei, predictably, this is all about Argentina’s « reputation », his singular renovation of which could seduce foreign investors. The only way to achieve this was « adjustment; shock. » He concluded by citing Maccabees 3:19 — « victory does not depend upon the size of the army, but on strength that comes from heaven » — and mentioned Hannukah, « a festivity of light that celebrates the true essence of freedom: the triumph of the weak over the mighty, the few over the many, light over darkness, truth against lies. »

With a cheer for freedom that his followers echoed to deafening effect, he began his journey from congress to the casa rosada — by car, at first, but he soon dismounted and walked, saluting and hugging his admirers. After he passed, having concluded that there was little left to see, I headed home, exhausted from the heat.

Argentina’s upper crust has hated Peronism since 17 October 1945, when a spontaneous-ish mass of racialized working-class people invaded the aristocratic public spaces of Buenos Aires to call for then-social welfare minister Juan Domingo Perón’s release from prison. Perón was president from 1946 until his deposition and exile, in 1955, and was president again from 1973 until his death in 1974. Though ideologically shifting, his followers synthesize Perón’s « doctrine » into three pillars: « economic independence, social justice, political sovereignty. » His pro-worker, pro-union policies identified the movement with the working class, though sympathy for Mussolini-style corporativism (and a rightward turn in later years) is part of the cocktail.

John Ganz, « The Forgotten Man », The Baffler (15 December 2017).

His running mate, Victoria Villarruel, was a military scion intimate with the upper echelons of the military. Her main political crusade has been to deny the atrocities committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, which disappeared around 30.000 people in what denialists like Villarruel and Milei prefer to call a « war » against « subversion ».

Mauricio Tenorio Trillo, in Latin America: The Allure and Power of an Idea (University of Chicago Press, 2017), traces the development of the notion of « Latin America » to mid-nineteenth century intellectuals based in Paris, in large part as a response to the Mexican-American War and the 1856 US invasion of Nicaragua. He also links the notion to anti-Protestant as well as antisemitic sentiment widespread in the context of the post-1848 imperial revival.

Ismael Viñas, « Una expresión, un signo, » in Contorno Nro 2, Mayo 1954, p2-5.

I’m sure a residence in Miami awaits Milei once he’s finished, come what may.