Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and Santiago Abascal of the far-right Vox movement in Spain will be in Buenos Aires this weekend for the inauguration of the newly elected Argentine President Javier Milei. Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Dutch politician Geert Wilders also received invitations but apparently can’t make it. While Wilders told Milei that he is busy trying to form the country’s government—which will likely be the most extreme since World War II—Trump, who first told Milei that he was going to be there, is facing numerous court cases and might be impeded from leaving the United States.
In the country where populism first came to power in 1946 with Juan and Eva Perón, the elected president represents a new, 21st-century century form of populism, one that is closer to fascism than ever before. And as in Argentina and other parts of the world, a reconstituted fascism is a clear and present danger in the United States, but it appears under the guise of a new breed of politician whom I call the wannabe fascist.
Like the fascists and dictators of my youth, this new political archetype aspires to destroy democracy from within democratic institutions, yet has, so far, failed to succeed. Leaders such as Trump are still experimenting with how to effectively destroy democracy. Trump has been continually trying out a combination of populist and fascist strategies and then repeating those that seem to appeal most to his base supporters. His natural instinct is to increase the danger to democracy while affirming his power and his cult.
These basic tendencies make him a wannabe fascist. The same patterns apply to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—and also to Milei.
After the global defeat of fascism at the end of World War II, the idea of coups and military dictatorships had become toxic to most societies. So former fascists and authoritarians tried to regain power through democratic means.
Politicians such as Juan Perón understood that elections provided a critical source of political legitimacy. Drawing on the charisma, celebrity, and political skills of his second wife, the actor Evita Perón, Col. Juan Perón won the 1946 presidential election, becoming the first populist leader in history to become a democratically elected head of state.
Populism borrowed elements of fascism. Like Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler, leaders such as Perón and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil transformed political arguments into all-or-nothing fights for a new moral order. They claimed to be the solution to an impending cataclysm. They denounced the ruling elites, thwarted independent journalism, and advanced a deep dislike for pluralism and political tolerance.
But because Perón and Vargas were popularly elected, they stood apart from the fascists with whom they are otherwise linked. Populism, especially after the defeat of fascism in 1945, moved beyond the four key elements of fascism: totalitarian lying, dictatorship, xenophobia, and the glorification of violence and the militarization of politics.
But today’s wannabe fascists have reengaged these four key elements and have, to different degrees, turned populism toward the ways of fascism.
A TV personality, Milei won the election by a wide historical margin, and this victory against Peronism will reshape the Argentine—and the Latin American—landscape for years to come. His triumph is already sending a reassuring message to anti-democratic populist forces worldwide. Trump celebrated Milei’s victory posting a video on his social media and stating, “I am very proud of you. You will turn your Country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again!”
Milei’s victory can be partially explained by his promises of swift solutions to the ongoing political and economic crisis in Argentina. These include an anarcho-capitalist proposal to eliminate the central bank, banning abortion, loosening regulations on guns, and his personal promise that in a few decades, Argentina will be once “again” the top world power. He also vowed to throw politicians out by “kicking them in the ass.”
In a country with 140 percent annual inflation, a 40 percent poverty rate, and notorious cases of political corruption, Milei’s anti-political words found a sizable audience. But the paradox of populism is that it often identifies real problems but seeks to replace them with something worse.
As one of his first measures as president-elect, Milei solidified an alliance with members of the party of former President Mauricio Macri, a sort of Argentine version of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The scion of one of Argentina’s wealthiest families, Macri entered politics after being the president of one of the top soccer teams in Argentina. Last week, Milei named Macri’s former security minister as the new security minister.
On the campaign trail, Milei also promised to engage in extreme austerity measures, reduce the number of ministries, privatize state companies, and give more power to the security forces. Once elected the designations for cabinet positions make it seem as if he will try to fulfill his campaign promises.
He also named a former fascist as state attorney—a role similar to the U.S. solicitor general. This dubious man, Rodolfo Barra, had to resign as justice minister in 1996 because of his neo-Nazi past. According to an Argentine newspaper, that past included being arrested for his alleged involvement in an attack on a synagogue and collaborating with the fascist rector of the University of Buenos Aires when he was 27 years old.
But the idea of fascism is not as toxic as it used to be in Argentine politics—and Barra is ready to serve Milei. There are, however, some pragmatic elements in the new administration. Although Milei (like Trump before him) had compared the Chinese government to an assassin and had denounced the Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva as “communist and corrupt,” his designated foreign minister is trying to make amends. The current ambassador who is close to Lula will remain in his post.
China has warned Milei that it would be a “grave” mistake to sever relations. China is Argentina’s second-largest commercial partner and Brazil is its main partner. What is clear is that Argentina will not join the BRICS block, a move that was previously announced by the country’s outgoing Peronist administration. When asked about the proposed entry during his campaign, Milei stated, “I will not have a deal with communists.”
This argument is peculiar. The new members of BRICS will include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. As any person who knows the world can observe, none of these countries are close to communism. But rational arguments are not important for Milei.
I was born in Argentina one year before the gruesome dictatorship led by Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla took shape. Like many other Argentines, I am still trying to come to terms with the crimes against humanity committed in the country of my childhood—the disappearances; the concentration camps; the citizens tortured, drugged, and thrown into the Atlantic from military planes.
Official estimates range from 10,000-15,000 murder victims, but in mid-1978, just two years into the regime, the military reported 22,000 killings to Chilean intelligence. Human rights groups have estimated that there were 30,000 victims. There was also the theft of babies born to illegally detained mothers, who were then abandoned, sold, or “adopted” by people close to the members of the junta.
One of the reasons that I became a historian was because I wanted to understand how the so-called Dirty War and its fascist ideology became a reality in a modern nation with a strong, progressive civil society.
More than four decades later, Argentina has just elected a mini-Trump who is even more unstable than the American original. Like Trump, Bolsonaro, and others, Milei is a practitioner of a new strain of populism, marked by vulgarity, attacks on checks and balances, intolerance and discrediting of the news media, disbelieving science, a cult of personality, and extreme lies and propaganda. These new far-right populists make intolerance the center of their politics and promote violence, the militarization of politics, the politicization of the armed forces, and an ideological legitimation of dictatorship.
In this respect, Milei represents a rupture in Argentine political culture. He has questioned a four-decade consensus over the crimes of the 1976-83 dictatorship’s “Dirty War.” The elected vice-president, Victoria Villarruel, is more pro-dictatorial in her views, and she has even justified the crimes of the dictatorship. “What happened in Argentina was an internal armed conflict, a low intensity war.” In reality, Argentina experienced an illegal militarization of state repression. The state waged “war” against its citizens. Historians speak of state terrorism, while Villarruel states that “state terrorism does not exist.”
Still, there is a lot that civil society and the opposition can do. Autocratic fascists acting within democracies have only succeeded when independent media institutions were not defended by readers and officials alike, when the separation of powers and the rule of law were minimized or destroyed without citizens’ opposition, when the radical left did not care about liberal democracy, when mainstream conservatives adopted the arguments of autocrats, and when the armed forces and the police sided with the authoritarian leader instead of the constitution. In such scenarios, democracy was lost.
In contrast, when fascist tendencies were resisted and democracy defended, fascism could not be sustained. It is difficult to know what will happen in Argentina, but a lot depends on the actions of citizens opposed to these autocrats.
Argentine civil society should remember that historically, when pro-democratic forces put aside their differences and resisted together, democracy prevailed.
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