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How the Hell Did This Guy Become Argentina’s Next President?

Javier Milei claims to speak to his dead pet through a medium. He has proposed allowing organs to be bought and sold on the free market. And yeah, that hair.

Javier Milei during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires
Tomas Cuesta/Getty
Javier Milei during a campaign rally in Buenos Aires on September 25

Too many electoral results are described as earthquakes when in reality they are little more than mild tremors. But in Argentina’s presidential election last Sunday, Javier Milei—a self-described anarcho-capitalist whose first electoral victory was just two years ago—defeated Sergio Massa, the sitting economic minister in the current Peronist government, who many believe has wielded far more power of late than the country’s president, Alberto Fernández. Milei’s victory truly does represent a seismic shift in Argentine politics, the radical untuning of its political sky.

Even political observers who agree on virtually nothing else are in accord about the election’s significance. Horacio Verbitsky, an ardent pro-Peronist and editor of the left online magazine El Cohete a la Luna, wrote that “Demographically and generationally, a new period is beginning” in Argentina. Historian Carlos Pagni, who is the dean of Argentine political journalism and one of Peronism’s most perceptive and incisive critics, compared the situation with the proverbial terra incognita beloved of medieval cartographers, “heading down a path it had never before explored.”

As shocking as the depth of the political transformation was its speed. Argentina’s midterm elections in 2021 inflicted a stinging defeat on Fernández’s government, which is scarcely unusual in midterm elections, particularly when the government is as unpopular as Fernández’s was at the time. But it also brought into the Argentine Congress political outsiders such as Milei, who, having won a seat in the lower chamber, quickly set his sights on the presidency. At that time, though, virtually no one in the political establishment, Peronist and anti-Peronist alike, believed Milei had any chance of ascending further—and for good reason.

Trained as an economist, Milei came to prominence as a television pundit with famously unruly hair who, precisely because of his propensity for provocation, quickly garnered a huge following. On the TV talk show circuit, Milei had been given to indulging in tirades that often degenerated into hysterical tantrums, and he either could not or chose not to moderate these performances during his presidential campaign. More than just temperamental, Milei is unnervingly weird: This is a man who confesses, without the slightest embarrassment, his habit of speaking to a dead pet through a medium.

So it was not without reason that Sergio Massa, who has had his eye on the presidency for at least two decades, saw in Milei the perfect foil to achieve his ambition. Massa is a career politician whose tropism toward, and skill at, intrigue and infighting is legendary; an old joke about Massa is that his problem is that in moments of crisis, he doesn’t know whom to betray. And yet, for all his political experience and cunning, he made a fatal error in helping to propel Milei’s candidacy.

Massa, as he geared up for his presidential run, knew he faced major headwinds. The Fernández government had made a dog’s breakfast of the economy, sending inflation into triple digits. Given that Massa had been minister of the economy since 2022, he knew much of the blame for this catastrophe was bound to fall on him. He calculated that if the right remained united in the 2024 elections, the candidate of the Juntos por el Cambio coalition, which had governed between 2015 and 2019, would win. On the other hand, Massa reasoned, if the opposition could be split, he could win. Milei seemed the perfect vehicle for such a strategy—that is, famous enough to siphon off anti-Peronist votes but too bizarre a character to actually win. Hugo Alconada Mon, Argentina’s most important investigative journalist, wrote that Massa created his own Frankenstein’s monster in Milei, but in the end, that monster “escaped his grasp” and wound up defeating him.

In fairness, Milei’s program was and is just as wild as Massa thought it was. Milei has promised to address the collapse of the Argentine peso by scrapping the national currency and replacing it with the U.S. dollar, to abolish the central bank, privatize many industries from the national airline to the national oil company, and offer people educational vouchers as an alternative to public education. Some of this is straight out of Margaret Thatcher’s playbook—a politician Milei has said he admires, which is an odd stance given that the prime minister oversaw Britain’s military humiliation of Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas War. But other ideas, notably dollarization, are outlandish even for a self-described anarcho-capitalist. And some, such as authorizing the unregulated buying and selling of human organs on the free market, were so bizarre even Milei eventually had to back away from them.

In the end, none of this mattered. Milei didn’t split the right, he annexed it. In the first round of the presidential election, Milei eliminated Juntos por el Cambio’s standard-bearer, Patricia Bullrich, thus setting the stage for a runoff with Massa. At this point, many Argentines began to think that, inflation notwithstanding, Massa might actually prevail over the extremist Milei. In the week before the runoff, virtually all of the polls forecasted a very tight race, though some did indeed show Milei ahead by a narrow margin (not that one would have known this from the Peronist media). For its part, the Argentine cultural class, whose leftward tilt would be considered extreme even by the standards of a humanities department of a North American university, rallied around Massa—though privately many understood that, whatever he might say on the campaign trail, he was not a left Peronist. As part of his strategy to win the anti-Milei vote on the center-right, Massa had repeatedly said his government would include important figures from the Radical Party, the UCR, that had supported Bullrich in the first round.

In the end, former President Mauricio Macri played a crucial role in Milei’s victory. Macri had always been viewed as sympathetic to Milei, and some of his intimates even suggested that ideologically he was closer to Milei than Bullrich. Macri was said to be convinced that Milei would accomplish many of the things he had not succeeded in pushing through during his term as president between 2015 and 2019. Macri not only endorsed Milei in the runoff but apparently convinced—some said pressured—Bullrich into doing so as well. By the end of the campaign, it had become clear that Macri would play a central role in a potential Milei government.

As the election results came in, Macri’s calculations were vindicated. Virtually all the votes that had gone to Bullrich in the first round went to Milei in the runoff. And despite Massa lavishly doling out cash to poor voters in the last weeks before the election and frantic campaigning by Peronist activists in the largely immiserated conurbano of greater Buenos Aires, Massa was unable to win back poor voters—especially poor young men who are either unemployed or who work in the informal economy. Many of them, though once reliable Peronist voters, had gone over to Milei.

It is Milei’s appeal to these voters that makes characterizations of him as simply an Argentine version of Trump or Bolsonaro so unsatisfactory. For neither Trump nor Bolsonaro ever had anything resembling Milei’s appeal to the poor. Milei not only defeated Massa but did so by 11 points—a landslide in Argentine political terms, and the worst defeat Peronism has suffered in 75 years. Out of Argentina’s 23 provinces as well as the city of Buenos Aires, Massa won only three—the province of Buenos Aires, in which the conurbano is located, and the provinces of Formosa and Santiago del Estero. And even in the province of Buenos Aires, Massa won only by two percentage points, whereas to have had any chance at winning the presidency he would have had to win there overwhelmingly.

That Milei could score such a victory testifies to the anger in Argentina. He ran on a promise to take a chain saw to government—there was actually a photo op with him holding a chain saw—and sweep away the entire political class. This claim is nonsense, of course, for if any individual embodies the Argentine political class it is Mauricio Macri, on whom Milei will have to rely to get any legislation passed, given that his own political party, La Libertad Avanza, will have very few seats in Congress. But for the Argentines who voted for Milei, the unknown is clearly preferable to the status quo. In political terms, even if Milei’s government fails, it is highly unlikely that Peronism will return as the default position of the Argentine state as it has largely been—save, obviously, for the periods the country suffered under military rule—since Juan Perón was elected president in 1946.

Carlos Pagni is right when he says that Argentina is entering terra incognita. The question, though, is whether it will wind up better off as a polity or if instead it will find itself in another region that medieval geographers signaled with the warning: Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons.