Argentina's threat to democracy feels like a preview for America's
COMMENTARY Sunday's reactionary populism-versus-smug liberalism clash in Argentina holds lessons for next year's U.S. presidential race between Trump and Biden — and for democracy.
A reactionary demagogue, whose fans revel in his flirtations with fascism and bay for him to tear down the establishment, is up against a moderate liberal who’s got inflation and national malaise weighing on his poll numbers like a nagging in-law who’s staying for another month.
Am I previewing next year’s likely U.S. presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden? Not exactly. I’m talking about this Sunday’s presidential runoff election in Argentina between far right-wing libertarian Congressman Javier Milei and Economy Minister Sergio Massa of the ruling, center-left Peronist coalition.
Then again, there are lessons in this pivotal 2023 clash of the Argentine gauchos for 2024’s battle of the American geriatrics.
If you’re wondering, Milei is 53 years old and Massa 51, compared to 80-year-old President Biden and 77-year-old former President Trump. Otherwise, the nature of these match-ups is eerily similar, as are the concerns — the most glaring of which is the preservation of democracy in the Americas. (Yeah, that’s all.)
In the U.S. and Argentina, Trump and Milei — two erratic, authoritarian populists who sneer with bullhorns at the inconveniences of constitutionalism — sit atop the voter polls. Not by wide margins. But the mere reality that they’re the leading horses in the presidential races of two of the Western Hemisphere’s largest democracies would make any visiting Martian ask: what the hell’s wrong with democracy in the Western Hemisphere?
Trump's and Bolsonaro's victories, and the real possibility of Milei’s, beg the question: what's the rot inside our 21st-century democracy they’re exploiting?
Like Trump, Milei is a sophomoric narcissist who loads his road show with bullying vulgarity (he derides the social justice treatises of Pope Francis, who is Argentine, as “shit,” calling him a “filthy lefty”), menace (he brandishes a chainsaw at rallies) and lies. He denies, for instance, that atrocities occurred under Argentina’s monstrous military dictatorship, which committed some 30,000 murders or disappearances of civilians during its “dirty war” between 1976 and 1983.
If he wins, Milei's bent on demolishing what he and his supporters consider Argentina’s version of the bureaucratic Deep State, so he can rule with virtual carte blanche. Milei wants not only to abolish public healthcare and education, but to eliminate Argentina’s Central Bank — a move akin to axing the U.S. Federal Reserve and similar checks against any president’s perilously autocratic control of monetary policy.
It's little wonder Milei admires Trump, who keeps howling the Big Lie that he won his 2020 re-election bid, which he lost — and who had his cult members violently trash the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, in a failed attempt to keep him in power. Media reports warn that Trump, who says he'll "crush" his "vermin" critics if he reclaims the White House, intends to morph the U.S. justice system into his personal vendetta mafia and all but declare martial law from Philadelphia to Fairbanks. He’ll make sure this time the Constitution’s stoplights are turned off.
Which is why a Milei victory would likely be a morale boost for Trump — just as Trump’s victory in 2016 buoyed the 2018 campaign of another hemispheric demagogue, then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy. A far-right apologist for his own country’s 20th century military dictatorship, Bolsonaro would win that year and spend the next four years subverting Brazil’s constitution.
Granted, Bolsonaro, like Trump, lost his re-election bid. But their victories, and the real possibility of Milei’s triumph as well as Trump’s re-triumph, beg the question: what is the rot inside 21st-century New World democracy that they’re so easily able to exploit?
In the cases of the U.S., Brazil and Argentina, it’s an apocalyptic urge among large cohorts of plebeians and patricians alike to blow up the democratic institutionalism they blame for the sense of socio-economic alienation, real or imagined, that they’re eating every morning for breakfast.
And liberal elitism doesn’t exactly salve that bitter disaffection.
In Brazil, the left’s arrogant corruption opened the door for Bolsonaro. In the U.S., smug, condescending liberalism turned out to be (and still is) a key Trump ally. And in Argentina, the overweening Peronist machine Massa represents — and the chronic boom-and-bust inflation crises it’s famous for, including the nation’s current economic mess — is helping drive the Milei spectacle.
Threats to democracy don’t occur in a vacuum. Or as they’d say in Buenos Aires, it takes two to tango.