Javier Milei, who takes office today, prioritized economic over cultural issues in his campaign, unlike his Brazilian kindred spirit Jair Bolsonaro. But the two far-right leaders both reflect the destructive spirit of neoliberalism in its nihilistic phase.

A Javier Milei banner on November 30, 2023, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Tomas Cuesta / Getty Images)

Javier Milei’s recent victory in the Argentine presidential election has left many wondering what place reactionary right-wing politics still holds in Latin America.

Less than a year following the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and the return of progressive leader Luis Inácio Lula da Silva to the country’s presidency, Milei’s landslide victory in Latin America’s second-largest economy seems to indicate dissonance within the region’s political landscape.

Bound neither by the neoliberalism of the 1990s, nor the “pink tide” of social democracies during the 2000s, Latin American leaders seem to lack a shared goal or vision.

If one followed the 2023 Argentine election, it was not difficult to spot many similarities to Brazil in 2018. And yet the main issues highlighted by Milei and Bolsonaro were, for the most part, radically different. Though both achieved similar results, the problems — or apparent problems — they chose to focus upon varied dramatically.

At first glance, the two candidates seem to represent very different strains of the far right — one is a radical libertarian, the other a hard-line nationalist. Upon closer inspection, however, it seems clear that both forms of right-wing politics derive from the same neoliberal paradigm that has defined reactionary politics not only in Latin America but worldwide since the end of the Cold War.

Contrasting Campaigns

When discussing similarities in the election cycles of Brazil and Argentina, the clearest parallel, of course, lay in the presence of a far-right candidate who presented himself as a near-messianic leader for the antiestablishment craze, quickly supplanting the conventional right-wing candidate and soaring to the top of the polls. With reactionary, hate-filled narratives, Bolsonaro and Milei both went on to win the election handily, stoking up immediate national and international concerns over what it would mean for them to implement the policies promised on the campaign trial.

If one followed the 2023 Argentine election, it was not difficult to spot many similarities to Brazil in 2018.

In this sense, the two politicians mirror one another, right down to the victory speeches in which both men defensively professed to have no problem with democratic institutions, before almost immediately making public plans that put the sincerity of their words in question.

There were other parallels, too, such as the lack of a solid candidate from the traditional left. Argentina’s highly controversial economics minister Sergio Massa proved to be too unpopular to prevent the reactionary victory, just as had been the case for Brazil’s hastily nominated Lula substitute, Fernando Haddad.

However, Milei and Bolsonaro focused their campaigns on different fields. As an economist, Milei made the economic turmoil that Argentina has been facing the center of his campaign. His government would, he promised, be dedicated to fixing hyperinflation and reducing the supposed excesses of the former administration. Liberdad, “liberty,” was the rallying cry of his campaign, invoking the libertarian and self-professed “anarcho-capitalist” nature of Milei’s vision for Argentina.

The new president spoke of a country freed from the alleged tyranny of governmental bureaucracy that he held responsible for all the evils besetting Argentina until now. Although he is a social conservative who opposes abortion and sex education in school while promoting ultraright conspiracy theories concerning “Cultural Marxism,” Milei tried to downplay these issues during the campaign and concentrate on his economic policies.

Bolsonaro, on the other hand, had very little to say about the economy in 2018. A self-described layman on economic matters, the Brazilian promised to leave most major economic policy decisions to his advisor Paulo Guedes. Bolsonaro directed his attention instead towards the same ideas about “Cultural Marxism” that Milei put on the back burner.

Proclaiming himself a champion of moral values, Bolsonaro achieved victory as the candidate of the nuclear, Christian family, and the ardent enemy of so-called indoctrination of the youth. “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” was Bolsonaro’s slogan, exchanging Milei’s vague libertarian approach for much more focused, Christian-nationalist rhetoric.

The biggest enemies that his campaign identified were not government bureaucrats or bad economic policymakers, but rather teachers and social activists who were supposedly seeking to convert Brazilian youth to their own amoral agenda. Most of Bolsonaro’s electorate knew little or nothing about his economic plan prior to his victory, save for vague promises of ending the corruption that he blamed on the Left.

Looking Backwards

In short, the average Milei voter focused on economic issues, while their Bolsonaro-supporting counterpart put greater emphasis on social ones. In both cases, however, we could find the same reactionary promise of a strongman empowered by the masses to turn back the clock.

The average Milei voter focused on economic issues, while their Bolsonaro-supporting counterpart put greater emphasis on social ones.

In his victory speech, Milei praised nineteenth-century Argentina, alluding to a period when the country’s high GDP levels and reasonably powerful military made it a model to aspire to. It is a classically romantic view shared by many in Argentina’s conservative circles, who blame Argentina’s latter-day problems on various events and developments of the last century, in particular the elusive concept of Peronism.

Bolsonaro’s main idols have always been the military dictators that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985. This was a time in Brazilian history that the former president presents as having been economically prosperous, safe, and free from communism. He went so far as to celebrate the anniversary of one notorious torturer of the military regime, lauding him for cleansing Brazil of the threat of communism and preventing it from “becoming Venezuela” — a fear shared by many Brazilian conservatives apprehensive of the left-wing government of the 2000s and 2010s.

Such idealized interpretations of the past, whitewashing the much grimmer reality in favor of nostalgia, are among the favorite tools of the far right. They play to the rejection of the modern establishment by Milei and Bolsonaro alike as illegitimate, in favor of some imaginary “correct form of government.”

Soon after his election, Javier Milei released a video where he ripped off stickers from a board with government ministries written on them, a communications-savvy way of announcing plans to effectively gut the state to its bare bones. Among the victims of these cuts would be the ministries of education and health.

Much the same came to pass in Brazil when Bolsonaro assumed office in January 2019, slashing the number of ministries from twenty-nine to twenty-two and creating so-called super ministries. The most notorious of these was the Economy Ministry, a fusion of previous bodies that was now headed by Bolsonaro’s advisor Paulo Guedes. Like Javier Milei, Guesdes is a partisan of the Austrian school of economics.

For Guedes, it was not simply a matter of shrinking down the government, removing supposedly redundant roles and superfluous expenses. He sought to actively work against the apparatus of state itself. What followed in Brazil from 2019 to 2022 was the gutting of the public machine, resulting in economic and social turmoil as income inequality grew exponentially and international investors gradually lost confidence in Brazilian markets.

Collor and Menem

The rejection of the modern establishment and the attribution of all social and economic evils to government action lies at the core of Milei and Bolsonaro’s rhetoric. The endemic problem of governmental corruption in both Argentina and Brazil makes it the perfect target for the far right’s attacks.

With all politicians deemed corrupt, the state itself becomes the problem. The appropriate solution, in their view, can only lie through empowering the private sector and the free market.

The rejection of the modern establishment and the attribution of all social and economic evils to government action lies at the core of Milei and Bolsonaro’s rhetoric.

Such rhetoric is not new in either country. Neoliberal politicians made use of it before in the 1980s and, more successfully, in the 1990s. In 1990, Fernando Collor was elected as Brazil’s president after portraying himself as an anti-corruption crusader. He was dubbed the “Maharajah Hunter” — in reference to a term associated with corrupt public officials — and conflated a stand against corruption with shrinking the size of the federal government.

The memory of Brazil’s military dictatorship was still fresh at the time, and the idea of a smaller government with more emphasis on public liberties sounded like a good thing to many people. However, the ensuing “shock therapy” applied to the Brazilian state produced a severe economic crisis which culminated in Collor’s impeachment in 1992 and the realignment of the Brazilian political scenario away from radical economic agendas. Subsequently, the center-right governments of the 1990s and the center-left ones of the 2000s sought to develop more robust state services.

Carlos Menem’s ten-year Argentine presidency from 1989 to 1999 also had a strongly neoliberal approach to the state, cutting back significantly on public spending, removing government ministries, and privatizing key industries. The economic shock that followed in 2001 was popularly attributed to his policies and brought about a political realignment.

The administrations of Collor and Menem were also plagued by corruption scandals of their own. In the case of Collor, they became becoming synonymous with his government. This may go to show how shallow the anti-corruption narrative often proves to be.

Figures like Milei and Bolsonaro now oppose the supposedly too powerful states that Argentine and Brazilian governments built up during the 2000s. With the rise of the international alt-right and the polarization of politics since the time of Collor and Menem, this neoliberal rhetoric contains a much more nationalistic and ethnoreligious admixture than before. At one and the same time, the nation is held up as the highest standard while the state is reviled.

Uncertain Prospects

Milei will take office on December 10. For all the radicalism of his rhetoric, he has already tempered his approach on many issues. Initially hostile towards having Brazil’s president Lula attend the inauguration, he has now changed his public stance and is encouraging the head of state of Argentina’s largest trading partner to be present.

Milei has also started referring in more cordial tones to other world leaders whom he previously insulted as “imbeciles” (Pope Francis) or “communists” (Joe Biden). It seems evident that winning on the campaign trail and governing a nation will prove to be vastly different experiences, just as was the case with Bolsonaro.

Milei has to contend with another major problem as well: the lack of political support within Argentina’s congress. When his Brazilian counterpart won the presidency in 2018, he was accompanied by a record number of far-right politicians who backed his agenda.

Even so, Bolsonaro could not gather the necessary legislative support and resorted to a form of improvised semi-parliamentarism, bestowing wide discretion and authority upon congress if the majority of its members supported his measures. Milei is starting off with less support from members of Argentina’s national assembly, and it remains to be seen whether this political outsider will manage to implement any of his promises.

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