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The clearest lesson of Javier Milei’s thumping victory

By Ross Douthat

The election of Javier Milei, a wild-haired showboating weirdo with five cloned mastiffs and a habit of psychic communion with their departed pet of origin, as president of Argentina has inspired a lot of discussion about the true nature of right-wing populism in our age of general discontent.

Milei has many of the signifiers of a Trumpian politics: the gonzo energy, the criticism of corrupt elites, the rants against the left, the support from social and religious conservatives. At the same time, on economic policy he is much more of a doctrinaire libertarian than a Trump-style mercantilist or populist, a more extreme version of Barry Goldwater and Paul Ryan rather than a defender of entitlement spending and tariffs. Whereas the party that he defeated, the Peronist formation that has governed Argentina for most of the 21st century, is actually more economically nationalist and populist, having ascended in the aftermath of the 2001 financial crisis that ended Argentina’s most notable experiment with neoliberal economics.

You can interpret the Trump-Milei divergence in several ways. One reading is that the style of right-wing populism is the essence of the thing, that its policy substance is negotiable so long as it puts forward figures who promise national rebirth and embody some kind of clownish, usually masculine rebellion against the norms of cultural progressivism.

Another reading is that, yes, the policy is somewhat negotiable but there are actually deep ideological affinities between right-wing economic nationalism and what might be called paleolibertarianism, despite their disagreement on specific issues. In American terms, this means that Trumpism was anticipated in different ways by Ross Perot and Ron Paul; in global terms, it means that we should expect the parties of the populist right to move back and forth between dirigiste and libertarian tendencies, depending on the economic context and political winds.

Here is a third interpretation: While popular discontents have undermined the neoliberal consensus of the 1990s and 2000s all across the developed world, the age of populism is creating very different alignments in the Latin American periphery than in the Euro-American core.

In Western Europe and the United States, you now consistently see a center-left party of the professional classes facing off against a populist and working-class coalition on the right. The center-left parties have become more progressive on economic policy relative to the era of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, but they have moved much more sharply left on cultural issues while retaining their mandarin and meritocratic leadership, their neoliberal flavor. And they have mostly been able to contain, defeat or co-opt more radical left-wing challengers — Joe Biden by overcoming Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primaries, Keir Starmer by marginalizing Corbynism in Britain’s Labour Party, Emmanuel Macron by forcing French leftists to cast a lesser-of-two-evils ballot in his favor in his runoffs against Marine Le Pen.

The populist right, meanwhile, has often found success by moderating its libertarian impulses in order to woo downscale voters away from the progressive coalition, yielding a right-of-center politics that usually favors certain kinds of protectionism and redistribution. That could mean a Trumpian defense of entitlement programs, the halfhearted attempts by Boris Johnson’s Tories to invest in the neglected north of England or the spending on family benefits that you see from Viktor Orban in Hungary and the recently unseated populist coalition in Poland.

You can imagine the gulf between these two coalitions keeping the West in a state of simmering near crisis — especially with Trump’s crisis-courting personality in the mix. But you can also imagine a future in which this order stabilizes and normalizes somewhat and people stop talking about an earthquake every time a populist wins power or democracy being saved every time an establishment party wins an election.

The situation is quite different in Latin America. There the neoliberal consensus was always weaker, the center more fragile, and so the age of populist rebellion has created a clearer polarization between further left and further right — with the left culturally progressive but usually more avowedly socialist than Biden, Starmer or Macron and the right culturally traditional but usually more libertarian than Trump, Orban or Le Pen.

The new alignment in Argentina, with its libertarian revolutionary overcoming a populist-nationalist left, is one example of this pattern; the contest between Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil last year was another. But the recent swings in Chilean politics are especially instructive. In the early 2010s Chile seemed to have a relatively stable political environment, with a center-left party governing through a market-friendly Constitution and a center-right opposition at pains to distance itself from the Pinochet dictatorship. Then popular rebellions cast this order down, creating a wild yaw leftward and an attempt to impose a new left-wing Constitution that yielded backlash in its turn — leaving the country divided between an unpopular left-wing government headed by a former student activist and a temporarily ascendant right-wing opposition led by a Pinochet apologist.

In each case, relative to the divides of France and the United States, you see a weaker center and a deeper polarization between competing populist extremes. And if the question for Latin America now is how stable democracy itself will be under such polarized conditions, the question for Europe and America is whether the Argentine or Chilean situation is a harbinger of their own futures. Perhaps not immediately but after a further round of populist rebellions, which could await beyond some crisis or disaster or simply on the far side of demographic change.

In such a future, figures like Biden and Starmer and Macron would no longer be able to manage governing coalitions, and the initiative on the left would pass to more radical parties like Podemos in Spain or the Greens in Germany, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezan progressives in the U.S. Congress, to whatever kind of politics emerges from the encounter between the European left and the continent’s growing Arab and Muslim populations. This would give the populist right an opportunity to promise stability and claim the center — but it would also create incentives for the right to radicalize further, yielding bigger ideological swings every time an incumbent coalition lost.

Which is, in a way, the clearest lesson of Milei’s thumping victory: If you can’t reach stability after one round of populist convulsion, there’s no inherent limit on how wild the next cycle of rebellion might get.

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