Javier Milei and the Populist Wave in Argentina

As Argentina embraces a new era, Milei's ascent reflects a broader trend of populist disruption in the country's political landscape.


Source: Infobae.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Argentine internet fueled the rise of the ultra-right populist, Javier Milei. The political outsider’s anti-establishment stance resonated with a population weary of economic crises. However, his lack of political experience raises questions about the potential impact on democratic processes. As Argentina embraces a new era, Milei’s ascent reflects a broader trend of populist disruption in the country’s political landscape.

In the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020, President Alberto Fernandez swiftly responded to the virus by imposing a rigorous nationwide lockdown on March 20. The stringent measures encompassed the shutdown of non-essential businesses, schools, and public spaces, coupled with severe limitations on movement. Extensive travel restrictions, both domestically and internationally, were enforced.

As governments worldwide implemented measures to curb the pandemic, global youth faced isolation, seeking solace in virtual realms. Social media became a lifeline, fostering connection, solidarity, and support during the enforced physical distancing. However, a turning point emerged in September 2020 with the documentary “The Social Dilemma.” Former Silicon Valley workers raised alarm about social networks evolving into fertile ground for political radicalization, drawing parallels between the radicalization of young individuals in the West and ISIS recruitment tactics, particularly on platforms like Facebook.

Argentina was not isolated from this phenomenon—the process of political radicalization in the country was translated differently. Social media algorithms played a significant role in amplifying fake news and dissatisfaction with sanitary policies, leading to mobilizations in key locations across Argentine cities. The grievances were directed towards the imposed quarantines, the obstacles against employment, mandatory vaccination, and a broader sentiment of discontent directed at the state and its policies.

All this anger and disgust with the status quo was channeled and embodied by a nearly 50-year-old economist and political outsider called Javier Milei. Through bold assertions he made during appearances on political talk shows and interviews in mainstream media (later disseminated on platforms like TikTok), he vehemently criticized the prevailing economic conditions and health restrictions.

In 2021, he ran as Buenos Aires City deputy—it was the first time he ever participated in an election. During his first debate, he boldly expressed skepticism about climate change and voiced reservations about the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet, his vehement accusation against the political establishment truly resonated with the general electorate. According to him, those in power were allegedly exploiting the state apparatus for personal gain and were indifferent to the suffering of the people. This narrative, laced with a populist fervor, struck a chord among the citizens, who by that moment had a prevailing sense of disillusionment with the state and its policies during the pandemic.


Milei and the Populist Tide

The political rhetoric of the inaugural libertarian president aimed to address the simmering anger and frustration within a society worn down by persistent economic crises and instability. With a projected 150 percent inflation rate for 2023 and 40 percent of the population living in poverty, the notion of dismantling the entire political and economic system began to appear quite rational to a populace grappling with an inability to envision any hopeful future.

The newly elected Argentine president has used a populist-style discourse to connect with the anger of the masses. According to political scientist and populism expert Steven Levitsky, three fundamental characteristics can help identify populism. One of them, exemplified by Milei in his brandishing of a chainsaw or his references to the “parasitic, corrupt, and useless political caste,” involves employing an anti-establishment discourse and committing to dismantle the existing political system.

Secondly, populism finds leaders among individuals lacking extensive experience in politics and public administration. This deficiency—a feature, rather than bug, when voters consider politicians ‘parasites’—is apparent in the case of Milei, who served as a deputy for four years without presenting any notable projects or initiatives. This poses a significant risk to democratic institutions, as populist leaders often lack the negotiation skills and institutional knowledge crucial for effective political engagement and reform. This concern is particularly pronounced when the candidate, like Milei, is committed to radically altering the status quo, potentially hindering the collaborative and diplomatic process essential for sustainable political change.

The third and final characteristic of populist leaders is their tendency to address their supporters as “the people” while positioning themselves as the authentic representatives of the masses. By wielding this rhetorical tool, populists such as Javier Milei assert their role as the true representatives of the majority, contrasting their vision of “the people” with their perceived enemies—often labeling them as false or illegitimate political opponents. Notably, Milei’s calls for reforms carry the implicit assertion that they are in the best interest of “all decent Argentinians.” This rhetoric implies a stark division, suggesting that those who do not align with his views are deemed “indecent” and positioned as adversaries working against the welfare of the majority.

In analyzing Milei’s ascendancy to power through the lens of these populist characteristics, one gains a deeper understanding of the dynamics shaping contemporary Argentine politics. The fusion of anti-establishment rhetoric, lack of political experience, and the portrayal of a leader who serves as representative of the people and guide of the masses against the enemies of their wellbeing all contribute to the populist appeal that has propelled Milei into a position of prominence within the political landscape.

This broader populist approach also helps us to understand why figures such as former Presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Donald Trump of the United States have expressed sympathy for the libertarian agenda in the Argentine arena. The emergence of the new populist leader has revitalized the international alt-right, providing it with renewed momentum following electoral setbacks in the United States and Brazil. This has opened up new possibilities for the alt-right agenda in the Americas.

While there are similarities in approaches and agendas, Milei differs significantly from Bolsonaro and Trump. Bolsonaro, with a political career, did not ignore the negotiation skills required for implementing reforms despite his assertive leadership. In Trump’s case, regardless of his lack of political experience, the Republican Party served as a check on the populist leader’s radical views, containing his excesses. An illustrative instance occurred when former Vice-President Mike Pence refused to disrupt the certification of the 2020 election, ignoring Trump’s complaints about the alleged election rigging.

Levitsky warned against this particular type of leadership, emphasizing that it serves as a catalyst for institutional crises. While some leaders exhibit two out of the three defining characteristics—a point exemplified by figures like Trump and Bolsonaro—the peril intensifies when these leaders possess all three traits, thus moving into a complete manifestation of populism defined as “full blown”. This manifestation poses a significant threat, dragging democracy close to the precipice of authoritarianism.


A Radical Beginning

In the days following the election, Milei exhibited a degree of moderation and openness by welcoming members of former President Mauricio Macri’s administration. The former president endorsed Milei in the final election against Sergio Massa, and there was a prevailing sense that Macri intended to “infiltrate” the libertarian party, which he characterized as “an immature and easily infiltratable group.”

In this sense, Macri sought to push for the appointment of deputy Cristian Ritondo as the President of the Chamber of Deputies. Ritondo, the former party leader in Congress for the PRO party of Mauricio Macri, emerged as the preferred candidate for this crucial position. The former president was also suspected of endorsing Patricia Bullrich, his former Minister of Security, as a key figure in Milei’s new administration. Bullrich, who had been the third candidate for the presidency in Macri’s administration but did not advance to the final round, found herself in a prominent role within Milei’s team.

Nevertheless, all these projects were short-lived, as the inclusion of Macri partisans in some areas went against the wishes of the president-elect, exposing underlying tensions. Cristian Ritondo’s hope to reach the Presidency of the Legislative Branch was swiftly extinguished with the appointment of a staunch libertarian to the position of president. Later that week, in a Tweet, Macri also disclosed that the appointment of Mrs. Bullrich to the Security Ministry was made in response to a personal request from the president rather than being a result of an endorsement advocated by his side.

The inclusion of more members from the previous Macri government in the new Milei administration might have served as a means to temper potential excesses that populist administrations can occasionally exhibit. This strategic move could have presented an opportunity for a level of control, akin to instances where the Republican Party in the United States managed to moderate some aspects of Trump’s policies.

As the days leading up to the Presidential inauguration unfolded, the radicalization of the emerging political force appeared to intensify. Adhering to Steven Levitsky’s first principle of populism, the new libertarian president made a symbolic move against democratic institutions. Instead of addressing the Legislature in his inauguration, he opted to deliver his speech to the masses gathered outside Congress. This choice, a public manifestation of his disdain for the political establishment, constituted a classic populist maneuver, emblematic of his intention to distinguish himself from traditional political norms.

The guest list for his inauguration did not indicate any intention to promote moderation nor ideological pragmatism. Despite robust commercial ties with Brazil, the decision to extend an invitation to Jair Bolsonaro as an honored guest stirred significant turmoil in the Brazilian government, resulting in Argentina’s main commercial partner abstaining from attendance. Additionally, controversial figures, such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary, known for his recurrent attacks on democratic institutions, further raised eyebrows and added an element of concern regarding the trajectory of the new leader’s political stance.



The ambitious economic austerity measures pledged by the new president appear implausible in a country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. Recent history in Latin America reveals the challenges associated with political outsiders navigating precarious economic contexts. Chilean President Gabriel Boric, Colombian President Gustavo Petro, and even Bolsonaro faced substantial levels of unpopularity, making the prospect of reelection difficult.

However, the libertarian Argentine president does not appear to be embodying the most “stable” outsider experience. Milei seems to be gazing into the perilous mirror of Peru, where former President Pedro Castillo engaged in a confrontational stance with Congress, resulting in an abrupt downfall of his government. It is noteworthy that even Castillo refrained from directly challenging the foundational pillars of the economic system, a departure from Milei’s promises.

Across the Americas, democratic institutions are grappling with a global assault on democracy, with Brazil and the United States being key battlegrounds. Today, Argentina’s democracy appears to be succumbing to this broader challenge. As the political landscape evolves, the echoes of these regional dynamics underscore the delicate balance between addressing economic woes and preserving the foundations of democratic governance.


Tobías Belgrano has a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the Catholic University of Argentina and a Master’s in Government Affairs from Buenos Aires University. With six years of experience in public administration, he specializes in addressing political instability and social integration of slums in Buenos Aires. As an independent political consultant, he advises media outlets globally and provides cutting-edge information for strategic decision-makers.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed. 

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