Anti-woke libertarian Javier Milei’s landslide win in Argentina’s presidential election poses not only a worrying question for my country’s fragile 40-year-old democracy, but could also embolden other extreme libertarians in the US and Europe in their own anti-woke wars.
Milei is often described as an outsider – but his revolutionary persona has been carefully crafted by one of the country’s richest men. Argentinian billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian plugged the wild-haired economist relentlessly on his A24 media network as an antidote to those he views as the dominant “political caste”. Milei has accused the Peronist establishment of being “socialist” because they had legalised gay marriage and abortion, put on trial and sentenced the perpetrators of Argentina’s genocidal 1976-83 dictatorship and threatened to impose new taxes on wealth.
Milei has pledged to review all these achievements, and has even proposed a referendum on the legality of abortion. His party is already working on slashing taxes as soon as it takes office next month, and he has signalled he may exonerate Argentina’s imprisoned dictatorship officers. During a presidential debate, he said that the military were guilty only of “excesses”.
Milei’s proposed dollarisation of the economy, a long-cherished business establishment dream, unexpectedly gained traction with the public during the campaign. Milei won nearly 56% of the vote in a country where 40% of the population live in poverty, even though his policies reflect the typical obsessions of billionaires everywhere. Tax is “theft”, social justice is an “aberration”, and public health, public education and social welfare need to be abolished. The climate crisis is “a socialist lie”.
But one of Milei’s beliefs is shared only with Argentina’s business leaders. The 1976 dictatorship – which Milei is keen to reappraise – imposed policies similar in many ways to his, including a semi-dollarisation that pegged the peso to the dollar. The 1,200 convicted dictatorship officers are seen by many businesspeople not as the Nazi-style killers and other criminals they were, but as stalwart defenders of the free market system. But we know how that experiment went. The dollar peg broke loose, the economy crashed and the dictatorship returned to the barracks with its tail between its legs.
When democracy returned in 1983 the full horror of what the military had done exploded into view, creating a consensus embraced even by conservatives that the armed forces would never be allowed to return to government, not even as defenders of the capitalist faith. Both Milei and especially the vice-president elect, Victoria Villarruel, argue against this consensus. Villarruel has made it her life’s calling to advocate for former officers incarcerated for rape, murder and torture, a number of whom she has visited in prison. She refuses to use the word “dictatorship”, unless she is referring to democratically elected Peronist administrations, and employs “de facto government” for the real dictatorship instead.
I was a young journalist during the dictatorship, working at the Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language community newspaper that reported on crimes against human rights. Part of my job was translating the speeches of the generals, full of references to “cultural Marxism” – a genocidal conspiracy theory that Milei chillingly resurrected for his campaign.
The generals had studied the works of Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, who argued that the revolutionary left would need to obtain cultural hegemony to achieve its ends. From this seed, the generals developed a conspiracy theory, not unlike the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that Marxists had infiltrated universities, Hollywood and the Catholic church, to undermine “our western and Christian way of life”. The “cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory can be heard in the US and the UK today.
During an interview with Tucker Carlson in September, Milei channelled the 1970s killer generals almost verbatim. Communists “have no problem with getting inside the state and employing Gramsci’s techniques”, Milei told Carlson.
The consensus that Argentina’s dictatorship committed genocide is the foundation of our democracy. Citizens of our polarised country, divided neatly in half between Peronists and anti-Peronists since the mid 1940s, agree on little else. Ending this consensus risks plunging Argentina back into violent, totalitarian chaos. Rethinking the dictatorship was unimaginable only a few months ago.
Milei is a snake-oil salesman who is promising to stare down inflation with drastic libertarian measures. Members of his party have already said they expect their drastic policies will result in massive protests. They have also said they will call in the armed forces if necessary to restore “order” – always that word. I’m confident that our democratic interlude will extend past 1983-2023, but it’s likely to take one hell of a beating during Milei’s presidency.
Uki Goñi is a writer based in Argentina and the author of The Real Odessa: How Nazi War Criminals Escaped Europe