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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-05-2024 06:52

‘Rockstar’ Milei just loves to travel

For the frenetic Milei, there is no time to waste … as long as his public image remains shielded from the vicissitudes of day-to-day life, then the show must go on.

Even before winning the election, Javier Milei was questioned by his detractors for a supposed psychological fragility that could generate systemic risks in the face of intense adversity. Up until now, at least, Milei has proven resilient to obstacles and unwarranted criticism, seemingly feeling empowered by his constant public battles. 

His self-esteem is also intact.

“The tour proved once again that I am the world’s foremost advocate for the ideas of freedom, please it whom it may,” he declared in a TV interview with journalist/buddy Jonatan Viale upon his return from last week’s shotgun trip to Spain, where he skirmished with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE).

“I’m on another level, and that’s what angers the Argentine politicians, because it demonstrates how insignificant and tacky they are, with limited reach. Wherever I go, I create an earthquake,” he told Viale, one of his favourite interviewers who continually lobs softballs at him.

A few days later, Milei used a book launch as an excuse to host a political rally at the historic Luna Park venue in Buenos Aires. This time around, he brought along a couple of musicians to play ‘Panic Show,’ his campaign anthem, allowing the libertarian leader to revive his youth when he played in a covers band. Wearing a leather trench coat, he jumped around the stage singing the hard rock song to the delight of his faithful followers. The rally had the usual mystical hues that characterise Milei’s particular brand of ‘the cult of the leader’ – one part messianic preaching, one part stand-up comedy (including the roasting of his adversaries) and one part Austrian economic theory lecture. 

With his ego reaching sky high proportions, the ultra-libertarian economist also appeared on the cover of this week’s Time magazine, starring in a lead story titled: ‘The Radical: how Javier Milei is shocking the world.’ He’s in very limited company here, having made it to the cover of the United States’ most important newsmagazine. Amongst Argentines, only president Ramón Castillo (1941), Juan Domingo Perón (1944, 1951), Evita Perón (1947, 1951), de facto president Pedro Eugenio Aramburu (1957), Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (1960), president Arturo Frondizi (1962), Lionel Messi (2012, 2023), and Pope Francis (twice: 2013, 2015) have made the cut.

For the frenetic Milei, who claims to be a workaholic spending at least 16 hours a day on the job, there is no time to waste. It doesn’t matter that his quintessential ‘Ley de Bases’ omnibus bill is stuck in the quicksand of the Senate, shipwrecking his ‘Pacto de Mayo’ and throwing off the political momentum gained after the bill passed the Chamber of the Deputies. As long as his public image remains shielded from the vicissitudes of day-to-day life (including an aggressive increase in poverty and intense economic slowdown – the consequences of the anti-inflation plan put in place together with Economy Minister Luis ‘Toto’ Caputo), then the show must go on. Already, the President has planned a trip next week to Silicon Valley to meet top tech executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Meta. He’s already booked another trip to Spain for late June too, despite the ongoing political rift with Prime Minister Sánchez which has resulted in the withdrawal of the Spanish ambassador from Buenos Aires. 

Milei’s already clocked in six overseas trips since taking office less than six months ago and his  magnetism is unlike anything Argentine politicians have seen in decades, if not ever. A comparison of Internet search volume over the past 90 days shows he handily outranks Sánchez, positioning himself at similar levels of interest to France’s Emmanuel Macron, one of the world’s most influential leaders. It seems only Donald Trump is beyond Milei’s digital reach. 

Mauricio Macri, once dubbed “the slayer of populism” by The Economist, generated widespread optimism after more than a decade of leftist populism at the hands of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, bringing in financial investment in the form of sovereign debt and ultimately failing to pass structural reforms, leaving the nation indebted, with rising inflation and poverty, and once again locked in currency controls. The return of the Kirchnerites, which seemed impossible a few years earlier, ensued, with Alberto Fernández chosen as the placeholder president. The same sectors who saw an opportunity in Macri are now aligned with Milei, at least ideologically. These are the financial sectors lending en masse to Macri and Caputo during his last government stint, before fleeing in the face of an emergency International Monetary Fund programme and panic attacks. Interestingly, these sectors already profess a libertarian ideology, particularly in the United States where they found themselves ideologically aligned with grassroots, far-right political groups converging in the Tea Party movement that shook up the Republican party. Ultimately, they made Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States in the context of a culture war which has grown to take on a global dimension.

The dialectic between progressives and the ‘anti-woke’ movement occurs at a historical moment in which the current phase of financialised capitalism has clearly run out of steam. In rich countries, the middle classes have seen stagnant salary growth as wealth has concentrated at the top, while developing nations have had to deal with increased inequality in a context in which large portions of the population don’t have their basic necessities covered. The rise of the so-called ‘New Right’ is an international phenomenon gripping, at the very least, Western democracies, where a sense of disgust and disillusion at the principles of democracy and the post-war welfare state are coupled with messianic populist leaders promising they will fix the economic issues caused by “socialism.” The culture war is not fought in the streets but on social media, where memes and soundbites are exponentially more impactful than the long speeches of yore. In the polarised world of political discourse on X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok, Milei’s aggressive style and apparent erudition in the form of the Austrian economic school has won him a massive following that has now gone global. Synthetic power at its best.

A thriving Argentina that has mastered the archaic disease of high inflation is in the interest of the international community. It would provide stability for a middle-income country which is one of the world’s largest food producers and rich in multiple natural resources. It would also provide an interesting business opportunity, at the same time retaining geopolitical relevance in terms of the size of the economy and its location, particularly as territory in the Antarctica and Southern Atlantic become increasingly disputed. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the “Western elite” has shown its support for Macri, and now Milei, and at the same time, its disdain for the Kirchners.

Yet there are serious doubts as to whether Milei’s libertarian macroeconomic “experiment,” as it is pejoratively called, will work. Orthodox economists including former economy minister Domingo Cavallo have questioned the soundness of his plan, while former intellectual partner Diego Giacomini indicates it’s unsustainable, adding that a V-shaped recovery is impossible, that a substantial devaluation should be expected  and that a default is practically inevitable. The political failure of Milei’s ‘Ley de Bases’ law has curbed the government’s capacity to push forth structural reform given self-inflicted wounds. 

Milei has already shown pragmatism in the past, punctuated by extremist positions and constant conflict. But as things stand, he seems to be more interested in overseas speaking arrangements and boosting his international profile than engaging in political negotiations. It remains to be seen whether his chainsaw austerity plan will be successful.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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