Argentina is just a day away from a Presidential runoff election that may bring to power the most bizarre candidate whom the nation has produced since democracy was restored there, exactly forty years ago. Javier Milei came in second in the first round of voting, on October 22nd, but several polls place him as the favorite for Sunday. Even if he doesn’t win, his political rise is a troubling comment on the state of the country, bringing it into the front ranks of the battle between democracy and autocracy that is currently sweeping much of the world.
Milei is a fifty-three-year-old economist who was practically unknown to the Argentinean public before 2015, when his appearance as a panelist on a popular late-night TV show immediately doubled its ratings and he became a regular guest. A self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist and libertarian, he called for shrinking the government, eliminating or cutting many taxes, and shuttering the Central Bank. On the show, he was often irate, berating his fellow-panelists and cursing. In the years since, Milei has disparaged women’s rights (“I will not apologize for having a penis,” he said, and promised to shutter the Ministry of Women, Genders, and Diversity) at the time of Ni Una Menos (Not One Less), the most powerful feminist movement in the country’s history, and has supported a total ban on abortion after it finally became legal, in 2021. He has also been a climate-change denier during a catastrophic drought in an agricultural economy; a sympathizer of the military dictatorship in the country of Nunca Más, the slogan that represents the commitment to never again return to an authoritarian regime; and a detractor of the first, and very popular, Argentinean Pope, in a majority-Catholic country. Wearing his hair styled like Wolverine’s, he looked and sounded unlike anyone Argentines had seen on TV. He provided a good spectacle.
Milei grew up in Buenos Aires during the last military dictatorship, and was thirteen when the country returned to democratic rule, in 1983. Six years later, when that first democratic government came to an end in the midst of epic hyperinflation, he quit pursuing a career as a professional soccer goalie to study economics. He earned two master’s degrees and worked as an independent consultant and as a chief economist at the company that administers thirty-seven of the country’s airports. He has also taught at private universities, and authored several books on economics. A few op-eds in national publications, which served as a platform for his ideas, led to his TV career.
Since he joined the Presidential race, his personal life has become the object of some fascination. Milei has publicly said that he had a very difficult relationship with his parents, whom he has called “progenitors” and from whom has been estranged. The only family member he is close to is his younger sister Karina. She is his campaign manager, and he has said that she will be his First Lady if he becomes President.
Then there are Milei’s dogs. He had an English mastiff, named Conan (for the barbarian), whom he called his “true and greatest love.” He was devastated when Conan died, in 2017—he recently told an interviewer that his dog and his sister were the only ones “who in all the most horrible events of my life did not betray me”—but he had previously sent a sample of the dog’s tissue to a dog-cloning company. He paid fifty thousand dollars, and, in 2018, he received not one but five cloned puppies. According to the podcast “Sin Control: El Universo de Javier Milei” (“Out of Control: Javier Milei’s Universe”), produced by the Spanish newspaper El País and the digital magazine Anfibia, in Buenos Aires, Milei remodelled his apartment so that the puppies could have room to play. But they grew to weigh two hundred pounds each, and they fought. One day, the dogs attacked him, and he ended up with stitches and his arm in a cast.
But the most confounding aspect of Milei’s story is how he went from playing a clownish character on TV to becoming a successful politician—or how he’s had a political career at all. After decrying politicians as “criminals” and “thieves” (and much worse) for years, Milei announced in 2021 that he was running for a seat in the lower house of Congress, and launching a far-right coalition called La Libertad Avanza (Freedom Advances). Though most Argentines still didn’t take him seriously, he captured the imagination of enough (mostly) young male voters to gain seventeen per cent of the vote in the city of Buenos Aires and won the seat.
This year, he entered the Presidential race, running against the two parties that have dominated the country’s political scene for the past twenty years, led by two former Presidents, neither of whom is running this time: the current Vice-President Cristina Kirchner’s center-left Peronist movement, the Unión por la Patria (Union for the Homeland), which was previously known as Frente de Todos (Everyone’s Front), and the former President Mauricio Macri’s center-right Juntos por el Cambio (Together for Change). Milei’s symbol is a diesel-fume-spewing chainsaw, which he threatens to take to everything he says is the problem with the country: whatever remains of a welfare state, including subsidies and state-funded jobs, women’s rights, the entire “political caste” as he calls the existing political system.