For years opponents of right-wing populism chastised the movement for having no principled content beyond “owning the libs”. And for years I batted away such critiques. Yes, populist leaders are inarticulate, their demands often contradictory and inchoate. But behind the mess I discerned a coherent project: to restore some of the national solidarity, social cohesion and democratic sovereignty that had been lost to corporate-led globalisation over two generations.
I’m not so sure any more. Maybe a purely negativist mess is all there is. Behold the jubilation of the worldwide populist movement in response to the victory of Javier Milei in Argentina’s presidential election.
The venture capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy, who is effectively running for vice-president of the US in a second Donald Trump term, tweeted, “May the spirits of Mises [and] Hayek be with you,” in reference to the intellectual architects of the neoliberal order. Matt Schlapp, the Trumpian chairman of the Conservative Political Action Committee, who foregrounds his Catholic faith at every turn, gushed, “America is not far behind you!” – apparently unbothered by Milei’s characterisation of Pope Francis as a “son of a bitch preaching communism” and “the representative of evil on Earth”. Trump himself, meanwhile, said he hoped Milei can “Make Argentina Great Again!”
Yet Milei rejects nearly everything “Maga” populists in the United States, and analogue movements across the developed world, claim to stand for. Trump clinched the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 by rejecting the Republicans’ neoliberal orthodoxies. He promoted tariffs, flashing the middle finger at the high priesthood of free trade at the Wall Street Journal comment pages (where I worked at the time). He vowed to defend social insurance programmes from the party’s benefits-slashers and privatisers. He courted the labour movement, winning over the highest marginal share of union households for a Republican nominee in more than three decades. And he even hinted at support for a public option in healthcare, ignoring his conventional Republican opponents’ accusations of “socialism”.
[See also: The myth of “Thatcherite” tax cuts]
It is true that, once in office, Trump did precious little to implement a more solidaristic agenda. Beyond tariffs on China – which his Democratic successor has kept in place – the Trumpian programme too often amounted to the same old tax-cutting and union-busting preferred by the likes of the Journal and the American Enterprise Institute. Still, it remains notable that the only successful Republican nominee since George W Bush trashed neoliberalism. Likewise, the most electorally successful right-wing movements in recent years, from Hungary’s Fidesz to Poland’s Law and Justice to Boris Johnson Conservative Party in 2019, have to varying degrees defied “the spirits of Mises and Hayek”.
Milei, by contrast, is a doctrinaire Hayekian seemingly grown in a secret laboratory funded by the Koch brothers, with the editorial staff of Reason, the extremist libertarian magazine based in Washington, serving as the scientists.
Tariffs? The Argentine weirdo has vowed to slash them and “liberalise absolutely everything”. The labour movement? He plans to gut hard-won worker rights, such as protections against arbitrary dismissal. National sovereignty? His proposal to dollarise the Argentine economy would leave the country without its own central bank and at the mercy of the US Federal Reserve System. Social solidarity? He favours letting living individuals sell their bodily organs on the market. He has also mused about setting up a market exchange for children; asked if parents should be allowed to sell their own kids, he replied, “It depends.” Reining in the financial industry? Milei is a devotee of cryptocurrencies, a class of unregulated and highly speculative financial products that libertarians hope will render traditional states obsolete, along with their pesky demands for mutual obligation and the public good.
None of this is to endorse the policies of Argentina’s Peronist establishment. By all accounts, the Peronists have been lousy stewards of the economy – though not, as right-wingers insist, because they’re “socialists”. Perhaps the ordinary Argentine voter can’t be blamed for looking at 140 per cent inflation and pulling the burn-it-all-down option at the ballot box. But Milei’s Maga fanboys up north have no such excuse: they seem determined to vindicate their critics that there is nothing there except for pure negativism, blow-hardery, and a desire to hurt the other side.
If saying outrageous things while pushing a political-economic agenda that would make Thatcher blush are all it takes to count as a populist, then “populism” has lost all meaning.
[Listen now: Is Britain really great? With Armando Iannucci]