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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
18 Nov 2023


NextImg:How Javier Milei Upended Argentina’s Politics

After the first round of Argentina’s presidential election on Oct. 22, a rally in support of upstart far-right candidate Javier Milei shut down a major thoroughfare in downtown Buenos Aires. Attendees draped themselves with the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and waved banners depicting a roaring lion, which has become a logo of sorts for Milei—evoking both his unruly mane and his vow to impose himself over what he calls Argentina’s “political caste.”

Milei, a self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” who has been compared to former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, had just punched his ticket to a Nov. 19 runoff against Argentina’s center-left economy minister, Sergio Massa. Milei’s feat upended what Argentines call la grieta, or “the chasm”—the traditional cycle of polarized political competition whereby the country’s center-left and center-right vie for control of governing institutions.

Milei’s ascent from libertarian economist to one-term congressman and now viable presidential candidate was rapid. Recent polling shows him with a narrow 4-point lead over Massa ahead of the runoff. Milei owes his success largely to social media—and the young voters who use it.

Instead of crisscrossing Argentina to meet with voters or blanketing urban centers with signage, Milei’s version of hitting the campaign trail entailed producing a steady churn of videos and social media content with a message that was confrontational and “appealed to certain negative emotions like anger, but also fear about what would happen if the next government weren’t led by him,” said Ana Slimovich, a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires.

Supporters of Milei cheer during a campaign rally in La Matanza, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.
Supporters of Milei cheer during a campaign rally in La Matanza, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.

Supporters of Milei cheer during a campaign rally in La Matanza, Buenos Aires province, Argentina, on Nov. 6. Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

That strategy proved especially effective among younger voters. Voters under the age of 29 are credited with making Milei a contender for the presidency: Polls show that nearly 50 percent of that cohort support the far-right candidate. “This movement was born with you,” Milei said in a tweet addressed to young people published shortly before the Oct. 22 first-round vote.

Having come of age in an era of chronic economic turmoil, young voters say Milei offers a new approach to governing that could turn around Argentina’s fortunes. Change is desperately needed: The country’s currency, the peso, is depreciating fast against the dollar, and year-over-year inflation stands at over 100 percent. The International Monetary Fund has forecast a recession for 2023, the seventh economic contraction Argentina will have experienced since 2012. More than 1 in 4 Argentine households now live below the poverty line.

By tapping into voters’ frustrations with economic instability, Milei has ushered a set of previously fringe policy proposals into the mainstream. His signature economic platform includes abolishing Argentina’s Central Bank, ditching the beleaguered peso, and dollarizing the economy—a move most experts warn is infeasible given the country’s low reserves of hard currency. A group of more than 100 economists recently warned that Milei’s economic proposals would spell “devastation” for the country.

Outside economics, Milei has also voiced support for liberalizing gun laws and greenlighting the sale of organs. Years ago, he floated a “free market” for the sale of babies, an idea he has since distanced himself from. In line with his anarcho-capitalist beliefs, Milei has pledged to cut 10 federal ministries, privatize state industries, and dismantle the public health care system in favor of private alternatives. Foreign policy wouldn’t be spared from major changes, either: Milei has suggested he would distance Argentina from Brazil and China, the country’s two biggest trading partners, and align closely with the United States and Israel.

Feelings of exasperation are particularly potent among young Argentines, who are more likely to be informally employed and earn lower salaries than middle-aged and older populations. TikTok, Latin America’s fastest-growing social media site, has been critical to Milei’s courtship of these young people. Milei has 1.5 million followers on the platform, compared to Massa’s 254,000. Milei’s advisor, Fernando Cerimedo, is an important player in the Latin American far right’s digital strategy; his previous clients include Bolsonaro, who adopted a communications plan that prioritized digital media and built an audience of 5.5 million TikTok followers.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (right), poses for a selfie with Milei supporters outside his party headquarters.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (right), poses for a selfie with Milei supporters outside his party headquarters.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (right), poses for a selfie with Milei supporters outside his party headquarters on Oct. 22. Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

In most of his TikTok videos, Milei looks to the camera and answers questions about his policies from a 22-year-old staffer who addresses him by the diminutive “Javi.” Milei concludes these short addresses with a trademark shout of “Long live freedom, damn it!” On Instagram, where Milei has 3.6 million followers (a little over 3 million more than Massa), he shares memes and hosts popular monthly livestreams, raffling off his congressional salary to “give back to the people the money that was taken from them by force.” In the most recent livestream, he led his staff in a chant of “the [political] caste is afraid.”

Slimovich said that young voters see authenticity in Milei’s bombast and bluster. In her view, right-wing figures such as Milei have found fertile ground online because their simple, grievance-filled language is eminently shareable—and because these politicians spend more time broadcasting on social platforms than appearing in traditional news media, which has become widely discredited in right-wing spaces.

Milei is also benefiting from a growing ecosystem of young right-wing Argentine influencers dedicated to amplifying his message. That includes full-time influencers with large accounts such as Tomás Jurado, in his early 20s—whose “Peluca Milei” (Milei’s Wig) YouTube channel recently passed the million-subscriber mark—and digital foot soldiers like 19-year-old Adriel Segura.

A Sergio Massa campaign poster is covered with stickers supporting Milei in Buenos Aires.
A Sergio Massa campaign poster is covered with stickers supporting Milei in Buenos Aires.

A Sergio Massa campaign poster is covered with stickers supporting Milei in Buenos Aires on Nov. 15. Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images

When he’s not in class or studying, Segura, who lives in Buenos Aires, dedicates his time to “waging the culture war” on TikTok, where he makes videos explaining or defending Milei and the ideology he represents. In just over five months, Segura has built up an audience of 69,000 followers and amassed millions of views. “Social media is Milei’s territory … and it’s an organic movement because it’s his own followers who make him go viral and promote him,” he said. “I feel like I’m part of that.”

Segura thinks the people who watch his videos—many of whom have written to say he convinced them to support Milei—are just like him. “It’s people who don’t trust traditional politicians, or traditional media,” he said. “And those people tend to identify electorally with Milei.” In Segura’s view, Milei’s supporters understand that a win on Nov. 19 will not magically reverse Argentina’s fortunes—and might even make life in Argentina more difficult. But the country’s chronic economic issues justify trying a new approach to governing the country, Segura said. “Instead of voting for the two parties that created or perpetuated this crisis, I’m going to vote for the guy who is different.”

Experts say that feeling is widespread among young Argentines. “There’s an environment of rage and frustration over the economic and social results that the country has had for many years. That’s led to this thinking that we need something new. Even if it ends in disaster, at least it will be a new disaster,” said Valeria Brusco, a member of the Red de Politólogas, a group of women political scientists. Young Milei supporters “tell you that they prefer for everything to blow up, and let’s see what happens afterward. They’ve got nothing to lose anyway.”

Supporters of Milei listen to his speech during the closing of his campaign for the primary elections, at the Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires.
Supporters of Milei listen to his speech during the closing of his campaign for the primary elections, at the Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires.

Supporters of Milei listen to his speech during the closing of his campaign for the primary elections, at the Movistar Arena in Buenos Aires on Aug. 7. Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

Milei’s youth supporters are mostly male. That’s not surprising, given how Milei has undermined the feminist movement that helped put Argentina at the progressive vanguard of Latin America. (Among other proposals, he backs a referendum to invalidate a 2020 law that legalized abortion in the country.) What experts say does appear contradictory about Milei’s youth support base, however, is how many are economically disadvantaged, including those who work in the informal sector. That includes a significant chunk of delivery drivers who find work through a bevy of popular apps such as Rappi or PedidosYa—and don’t seem swayed by Massa’s party’s proposal to include gig workers in the formal economy and expand labor rights.

According to political analyst Carlos De Angelis, informal workers are wary of state involvement in the economy, which they associate more with pandemic-era restrictions on work than potential policies that could enhance their well-being. “There’s this concept of a benevolent state, right? Well, for them, it’s more like a malevolent state,” he said.

Back at the Oct. 22 Milei rally, Joaquin Ignacio Piaggio met two of his friends, all first-time voters. The 21-year-old philosophy student works part-time as a receptionist. He said he sometimes skips meals because he earns so little, and he must wait months to purchase everyday items like clothes. The idea of moving out of his parents’ home and renting an apartment of his own one day feels inconceivable.

Piaggio doesn’t see a future for himself in Argentina if Massa’s ruling party wins the Nov. 19 runoff. He said he is proud of young people like himself and his friends for elevating Milei as an alternative. “We are the generation that created a change.”