Celebrations by the MAGA right of Javier Milei’s victory in the Argentine presidential election have been met with accusations of incoherence. This says as much about the critics as it does about global right-wing populism.
The differences between Donald Trump’s economic nationalism and Milei’s self-described anarcho-capitalism, even-tempered by the guaranteed compromises of party government, are obvious. But they share more than “owning the libs.” Or, rather, such liberal ownership is more than an emotionally reactionary opportunity for schadenfreude, but a coherent, if often inarticulate, program of political restoration—that is, restoring the political to politics.
Milei, like Trump, puts persons, and personalities, above processes and programs.
The temptation for the conservative commentariat, Republican electioneers, and think-tank theorists, on the other hand, has been an effort to make a system out of MAGA and to define the populist moment by a set of principles. The right policy stack, the susceptible have argued since 2016, can recapture Trump’s electoral magic for a fill-in-the-blank candidate because the voting coalition can be reduced to an inchoate social democratic working class, ready to cleave to whichever party acknowledges its existence in appropriate class-based analytical terms.
But this ideological version of the so-called New Right makes the same mistake it rightly calls “Zombie Reaganism” in Conservatism, Inc.: turning one man’s prudential responses to the needs of a particular period of national life into a propositional creed for all time, and even all places. A former Democrat, Ronald Reagan knew politics and politicians must adapt to new conditions—so does Donald Trump. Voters elected the men, and their instincts, not a series of white papers. Argentina’s voters have elected Javier Milei.
Populism is about people, and a champion putting those people first. They’re not after me; they’re after you, and I’m just in the way. It is not a program, abstractable from a given context. There may be an identifiable program, of course: I appreciate Trump’s protectionism, and admire that he campaigns on economic nationalism; I think the breaks he makes with Republican policy orthodoxy are the right ones. But I am a policy professional, a paid pedant, and even I cannot claim those positions as such are why I went to work for him.
No, I went because President Trump is a genuine personality, and his administration forced a reckoning with a faceless and unaccountable executive branch. The administrative state will only be mastered—remade into a mediating institution, sundered from the supra nationalist clique to which many in it belong—by persons, bureaucrats committed to being more than functionaries, responsible for their power and accountable to the people’s authority in their president. Plus, he said he’d build the wall.
The popular politics of our time, the populist fight, is not defined by buzzwords like neoliberalism, privatization, or labor power, but embodied in taking a stand against an establishment that rules for itself, to its benefit, as it squanders the future. Credentialed and anonymous, they seek to depoliticize government, to impose processes and programs of control by rules and terms of service, rather than laws and deliberation. They are the managers of decline, an international elite that has sold our inheritance to China for a mess of pottage and flung open the West’s gates to invading armies.
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In the United States, as leader of the liberal international order and global clearing house, opposition to this tyranny does indeed take on the appearance of something like a worker’s party. For it is the blue-collar middle class that has borne the brunt of decades of betrayal, its wages and businesses competing with immigrants at home and sweatshops abroad. It has been the flyover communities of the heartland that have been left to rot, its people passed over and replaced. But the means of national preservation are not the end.
The end is national greatness. And in Argentina, after decades of Peronism, that end will be sought by means different than in America. Javier Milei has not been shy about who he is. His people are electing him, with all his kitschy Randianism, to remove what began as its political movement of personality, Juan Perón’s populist moment. That has, they say with this election, in this endorsement of Milei’s persona, become with time a stifling and smothering thing, a process unto and for itself. Peronism is now just a clique and a program. Perhaps inflation, that terrible abstraction, can only be wrestled with by a man.
There is no contradiction in support for Trump and the celebration of Milei. The distinction to which political actions can be reduced remains that between friend and enemy, and the character of populism—democracy and demagogue share their demos—has not changed since the Greeks invented political science. It is the fight of the many, led by a statesman who gives them voice, against the few. Some of their few are our few, too. And in both countries, the task at hand is the mastery of a state that does not serve the people.