Monday, July 15, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 30-09-2023 05:50

Swamp creatures have Javier Milei surrounded

Like Trump, Milei owes his success to his apparent determination to “drain the swamp.” Many of these slimy creatures, aware of the danger he posed, soon began crawling towards him in search of refuge. He is now surrounded by them.

Javier Milei, who could be Argentina’s next president, says he wants to do away with what ( taking his cue from a Spanish leftist) he calls the “political caste.” In his view, most of its members are thieving parasites who are far more interested in their own personal welfare than in anything else and have greatly harmed the country. Many people agree with him, which is why, in a remarkably short time, he came from nowhere to dominate the political scene.

By doing so, he transformed himself into a leading member of the “caste” he claims to despise and set about winning the allegiance of a large number of adaptable individuals who think he could reach power and want a share of the spoils. Among these are many who, until yesterday, were loyal Peronists or Radicals who were keen on social justice but now tell anyone who cares to listen that they are fervent believers in free-market economics and foes of the meddlesome populists who, Milei says, have brought the country to its knees.

Like Donald Trump, Milei owes his success to his apparent determination to “drain the swamp” with the aim of making it uninhabitable for the slimy creatures that infest it. Many such, aware of the danger he posed, soon began crawling towards him in search of refuge. He is now surrounded by them.

And, like his North American counterpart, the man with the chainsaw prefers to communicate with his followers via the proliferating social media in which anything goes rather than the old-fashioned legacy ones which, according to him, are owned by the “caste” he wants to do away with. Liberal he may be when it comes to economics, but he is not exactly a friend of free speech.

Trump was already a celebrity when, to widespread laughter, he announced he was running for president of the United States. Until fairly recently, Milei was very much a fringe character who by screaming insults on television made the ratings go up, boasted about his sexual versatility, enjoyed going on about deceased Austrian economists, swore he had regular chats with the Almighty, and often discussed policies with the cloned dogs he calls his children. 

In less tumultuous times than those we are living in, Milei would have been quickly written off as a comic turn, an Argentine version of the United Kingdom’s Screaming Lord Sutch who, as head of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, stood for election on 39 occasions without ever getting more than a few hundred votes. Despite being every bit as nutty as the British rocker, Milei could receive up to 10 million.

Though many in the UK back then were clearly fed up with the status quo, only a tiny minority thought that the political system had been broken beyond repair and should be replaced by something entirely different. This is still the case; the two big parties have not disintegrated. However, in the United States and, to an even greater degree here in Argentina, about half the populace seems convinced that the system is stacked against it, which is why, according to some opinion polls, Trump could beat Joe Biden next year and, as things stand, Milei is currently the favourite to beat Patricia Bullrich and Sergio Massa in the race to the Pink House. 

Milei may be one of a kind, but there have always been plenty of Argentines who think that getting rid of politicians who spend much of their time trying to trip up their rivals would help galvanise a lethargic society. First the Radicals and then the Peronists were against party politics on principle because they aspired to represent all the country’s inhabitants with the exception of oligarchs and their hirelings who let themselves be influenced by sinister foreign creeds, and not just those who happened to support the policies they adopted.

The notion that political conflicts are somehow unpatriotic because they are divisive still makes itself felt; there can be no doubt that her long, and at times acrimonious, internecine dispute with Horacio Rodríguez Larreta did considerable damage to the electoral prospects of Patricia Bullrich. The effort she put into beating him may well have cost her a presidency that was there for the taking.

For half a century, Argentina was regularly subjected to military rule because many civilians imagined that the men in uniform, accustomed as they were to obeying orders in a disciplined manner, would be able to get things moving by abolishing politics. The deep-rooted way of thinking that made military dictatorships attractive not only to a handful of extremists but also to many upstanding citizens who now swear they were always against them is still very much with us, which is why millions are lining up behind the libertarian prophet.

In the US and to a certain extent in other prosperous countries, working-class and lower-middle-class folk greatly resent being pushed around and talked down to by a recently formed elite of university graduates with progressive pretensions. The mental gap separating the increasingly “woke” elites who are obsessed with things like gender-loaded pronouns and the differences, if any, between males and females, from “ordinary” people who take a traditional approach to such matters could hardly be greater. What is more, in the English-speaking countries the situation has been made worse by the arrival of harder times for most wage-earners as a result of the off--shoring of manufacturing jobs and routine office work to countries like China and India, a phenomenon which many blame on the politicians who apparently took it for granted that it would be easy for those affected by such changes to acquire the new skills they would need to get better jobs.

Up to now, Argentina has been little affected by the “culture wars” involving sex, ethnic identities and so on that bother intellectuals and politicians in many developed countries. Though the Kirchnerites did try to import some of the products of North American academe, even those who took them seriously understood that the rapidly deteriorating economic situation would have a far greater impact on their own lives than anything involving racial relations or what should be done to accommodate irate transsexuals. Here, hostility towards the “political caste” is fuelled by its crass mishandling of the economy, but even when things seemed to be going reasonably well there were many who thought it was surplus to requirements and should be dispensed with.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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