Javier Milei, Trump and Bolsonaro admirer, leads Argentina presidential race

Javier Milei, the frontrunner in Argentina’s presidential race, gestures during his campaign-closing rally Wednesday in Buenos Aires. (Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BUENOS AIRES — The blast of a shofar echoed across the arena. A giant screen showed atomic bombs destroying cities. Then the image of a lion in flames appeared, and thousands of young men screamed.

The star of the show had arrived: Javier Milei, the man leading the race to become Argentina’s next president.

“I am the king — the lion king,” the floppy-haired economist sang in his raspy voice. Supporters joined him in belting out his rewrite of the headbanging Argentine song “Panic Show.”

“Don’t run away from me; I am the king of a lost world. I am the king and I’ll devour you. The entire caste is my appetite.”

Trump-admiring libertarian’s surprise primary win upends Argentina

Most of the thousands who packed the Movistar Arena for Milei’s campaign-closing rally on Wednesday were men, many of them young, and all of them seemingly angry.

Angry with a leftist establishment that has failed to control spiraling inflation and economic stagnation. Angry with a government that has allowed their currency to plummet and their earnings to vanish.

Young people are a political force in Argentina. Young women here were on the front lines of massive protests for the “green-wave” abortion rights movement that spread across Latin America. They’ve led a campaign for gender-inclusive Spanish and helped bring the populist movement of former Argentine leaders Juan and Eva “Evita” Perón back to power.

Now, after the Peronista government of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Kirchner has failed to halt the country’s economic decline, a new force among Argentina’s Generation Z is rising.

This time, it’s young men who are at the forefront. Milei is speaking for them.

With his viral TikTok videos raging against the “political caste” and evangelizing his free-market ideas, the 52-year-old congressman has touched a nerve among a generation of young people struggling to enter the workforce.

An admirer of Trump and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, Milei is campaigning on an Argentine version of “Drain the Swamp.” His aggressive style, outlandish comments and unusual presentation — he claims he hasn’t brushed that hair in years — have drawn millions of viewers to his videos and disrupted traditional politics.

He has branded Pope Francis — the Argentine former Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio, the first South American pontiff — an “evil” leftist. Climate change, he says, is a “socialist lie.” He would held a referendum to undo the three-year-old law that legalized abortion. He has called for creating a market for the sale of organs.

But he has also offered frustrated Argentines a break from the status quo: He has proposed shutting down the central bank, dollarizing the economy and taking a “chain saw” to government spending.

Argentina’s economy is collapsing. Here come the Peronistas, again.

Polls here show Milei leading the field of five candidates in Sunday’s presidential election. If he wins, it will likely be on the strength of the country’s young. Voters aged 18 to 29 account for a quarter of the electorate, and polls show they’re overwhelmingly inclined to vote for the iconoclast. That’s especially true for young men.

One of those young men is Juan Cruz Coronel, a 21-year-old volunteer for Milei’s libertarian party in the city of Rosario. The political science student walked into the rally with a Milei flag draped across his back like a cape.

Coronel grew up watching the North American right-wing provocateurs Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro and Milo Yannopolus on a YouTube channel that translated their words into Spanish. “They were a fundamental part of my ideological awakening,” he said. But his greatest inspiration was Trump.

“We stopped listening to the intellectuals to listen to the politicians,” Coronel said.

“While everyone was focused on feminist demands and gay rights, there was a generation slowly starting to pay attention to Javier Milei.”

An unconventional candidate

Long before Milei could pack a Buenos Aires concert arena, he played goalkeeper for the second-division Chacarita Juniors soccer team and the Mick Jagger role in a Rolling Stones tribute band. A former goalkeeper for a local soccer team.

He decided to become an economist in 1989 during the early days of hyperinflation in Argentina. He worked as a risk analyst for Corporacion America, owned by one of Argentina’s billionaires, before leaping into television as a regular guest on shows.

Milei’s unconventional ideas and brash style — rants peppered with personal insults — was a TV hit. As the peso plunged and inflation skyrocketed, his economic theories began to find an audience.

He was elected to congress in 2021 on pledges to tear the political elite down. He gained national prominence by raffling off his congressional salary each month.

Milei describes himself as a liberal-libertarian or a miniarchist. He supports limiting government to just a few functions — ideally, only security and justice — a night-watchman state.

He raffles off his salary. He could be Argentina’s next president.

He promises to slash the number of federal ministries from 18 to eight. He applies his free-market ideas to just about everything — he proposes loosening gun restrictions to “maximize the cost of robbery” — and letting the invisible hand of the market do the rest.

The economist Alberto Benegas Lynch, whom Milei has called the father of Argentine liberalism, opened his rally.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to ask whether I am living a dream or it’s a reality,” he told The Washington Post. “Because what Javier Milei proposes in politics hasn’t been heard in Argentina for 80 years.”

Milei’s personal life? He owns four mastiffs, each of which weighs more than 170 pounds and bears the name of a renowned economist.

In 2017, when his dog Conan was in decline, he prevailed on a U.S. laboratory to produce four clones of Conan, according to Raymond Page, one of the founders of the PerPETuate laboratory.

Milei dedicated his victory in the primaries to his “four-legged children.” But he remains close to the late Conan. After his death, he sought the help of a medium to communicate with the deceased dog, according to a person familiar with the subject. “Eventually, what was bothering him at that moment was resolved,” the person said.

While thanking his team during Wednesday night’s campaign rally, he called his dogs the “best strategists in the world.”

The crowd cheered as the bespectacled economist chuckled into the microphone.

Politics for the TikTok generation

Milei’s originality is perhaps exactly why Gen Z is so transfixed by him. It’s a generation craving authenticity, Argentine political analyst Ana Iparraguirre said. “They see this guy telling it like it is,” she said. “I might not like that he’ll be selling guns in the streets, but at least this guy is not faking it.”

Most of his 1.4 million TikTok followers are younger than 24, according to his social media team. Iñaki Gutierrez, a 22-year old unpaid volunteer who manages his TikTok, said Milei managed win the primaries in remote provinces “we didn’t even set foot in.” “TikTok was the answer,” Gutierrez said.

The fastest-growing social media site in Latin America has helped elect a wave of millennial presidents in the region, including Nayib Bukele in El Salvador and, last week, Daniel Noboa in Ecuador.

Milei’s TikTok posts offer Generation Z voters an outlet for rebellion against a system that they say is doing very little for them.

Unlike their older siblings or parents, they aren’t old enough to remember the initial years of economic growth under president Néstor Kirchner or his wife, the former president and current Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. According to one recent survey, more than 65 percent of young voters say they would leave Argentina if they could.

“They feel they have no future,” Iparraguirre said. “If you’ve got nothing to lose you may as well try something different.”

Agustín Fragoso, 24, owns a small business selling meat and chicken. His sales have plummeted as his prices have more than tripled. Customers who would once buy two kilograms of milanesas now buy half a kilogram. He’s voting for Milei in the hope he can fix the economy.

Fragoso’s girlfriend, Victoria Alegre, 23, walking with him in a mall in Buenos Aires this week, said she thinks Milei is a machista who could roll back rights for women. Fragoso said he also dislikes the way Milei speaks about feminism. But he’s willing to overlook it, he said, to take a chance on something — anything — different.

At the Movistar arena, Milei fans carried toy chain saws or passed around fake U.S. dollars printed with Milei’s face. Some wore Make America Great Again hats.

“They said we were dangerous and that we needed to be quiet,” Milei shouted. “But we’re here, we fought the battle, and we’re going to win!

“Long live freedom, damn it!” Milei roared.

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