This week's presidential election victory for rock star economist Javier Milei in Argentina leaves more questions than answers for the fate of that struggling country. However, for Americans, it serves as a great case study for why much of the populist New Right intelligentsia is just as out of touch with politics as their neocon parents.
Politics is a performance art spectacle sponsored by oligarchs to test which identity avatar most effectively reflects the mood of the public and, consequently, what slight adjustments to the status quo the state must concede. In this regard, I have very limited expectations for what Milei will actually be able to accomplish in his stated goals of dismantling the central bank and various corrupt agencies of Argentina. Bureaucracies are very adept at maintaining their scams despite the ceremonial figures the public endorses. Still, the fact that a major country like Argentina – once the ninth-richest in the world – has elected a figure like Milei who uses physical comedy and vulgarity to promote Austrian economists like Murray Rothbard and anarchists like Lysander Spooner at every chance is a historic, surreal moment. It repudiates the notion in D.C. conservative circles that a majority of the public would never co-sign radical rhetoric to abolish state power in their lives.
After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, I encountered several writers and think tank activists when I would visit D.C. who reflected the ideas of what has been dubbed the New Right or populist conservatism. In discussions, many of these individuals would repeat, as if reciting a creed, that Trump's election meant the public had soundly rejected the "libertarianism of the George W. Bush administration." To which I would give them the Tucker Carlson dumbfounded eyebrow – what libertarianism of George W. Bush? For Beltway political nerds, the lame limited-government rhetoric of Bush-era politics was actually somehow libertarianism in governance. Although I am not a libertarian, I share many of the philosophy's objections to state power and simply could not understand how Trump's election meant the Republican Party's decades-long "libertarian" bender of Patriot Acts, wars, surveillance, corporate welfare, New Deal whining, regulatory expansion and central bank malfeasance had been repudiated.
That's when I realized that being out of touch with the middle-class voters who put Trump over the finish line, these young D.C. thinkers were measuring politicians' success as if their rhetoric reflected their governance and the public's support for specific policies. To judge the GOP establishment as libertarian would be like a wrestling fan believing the Undertaker character was an actual dark wizard. Since Trump won without parroting the GOP's lame big-government talking points, their reasoning went, the public was done with cutting government (which never happened).
New Right activists were and are confused by their insular Beltway bubble. The libertarians they encounter at cocktail parties reflect the materialistic, atomistic ideologies of elite-friendly think tanks that have little in common with the passions of the middle class that elected Trump. But that does not mean Trump voters had some kind of deep belief in expanding centralized state power for right-wing causes.
D.C. nationalists believed Trump's win would and should translate to public support for things like Japan-style industrial policy, paid family leave mandates, reshuffling corporate handouts, welfare for families and dramatic spending – inflation concerns be damned, 2016 declared. A lot of this is romanticism for factory work, by kids who went to Ivy League schools and feel a compensatory calling to connect with the real and tangible production of men they do not know.
What we know about the American middle class is that their policy support can often be contradictory when it comes to the size and scope of government. In reality, what motivates them to the kind of passionate devotion they had for Trump in 2016 and have in 2023 is something beyond ideology. Reading policy mandates into his victory or Milei's victory this week is missing the point. These figures are making historic connections because they are displaying a gift of raw charisma and speaking truths about the status quo decay of their respective countries. The proposals they offer are ancillary. Voters respond to electricity. They respond to truth. Electric truth-telling is what they want.
Trump's slogans with the most appeal – build the wall, end the wars, fair trade, drain the swamp – were indictments of D.C.'s power. But the most important ingredient to his and Milei's success is their insider-outsider paradoxical charisma. They are intense TV stars filled with humor and rage against their fellow elites. Such passion bypasses the left-hemisphere of our brain's sorting and categorizing policies and reaches into our deeper desire to belong and follow a leader. Kingly, you could say. This magnetic energy is of the soul and is not something you can fake or manufacture. It certainly does not equate to a public's desire for expanding the monstrosity of our current government. It is its own thing. With the charisma Trump had in 2016, he could run with anarcho-capitalist rhetoric geared to his target audience and win just as well.
The Democrat brand taps into the feminine need for everyone to get a cookie and feel seen and heard in their emotional mess. Trump and Milei represent the return of masculine confidence and humor in the midst of chaos wrought by an insane empire and its haunched outposts. These figures are more effective as campaigners than presidents. In a campaign, they can practice their performance art in a prophetic role. Once elected, they slam into the brick wall of priestly maintenance of the state's sacred temples with which oligarchs make a killing.
We should send more charismatic iconoclasts to tear down sacred cows, but we should manage our expectations. Elections should be seen as vehicles to share symbols and entertain. The real work of building civilization will be found outside the camp of politics. Did Nikola Tesla need an election to electrify the world?
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