The shockwaves from the nuclear explosion caused by Javier Milei’s surprise victory in the PASO primaries are still being felt across Argentina’s socio-political ecosystem. As explained previously in this column, the initial incredulity in the face of the ultra-libertarian’s pole-position finish in the qualifiers is connected to the lack of a cognitive and sociological framework of the intelligentsia to acknowledge and digest such a phenomenon. A failure to comprehend the incident led to it being characterised as part of a “craziness” tied to the outward projection of the character that is Milei, which in the face of his actual victory now renders his detractors paralysed and unable to respond. The initial effect has been a consolidation of the libertarian’s position as the frontrunner, which has generated a complete change in expectations (which had its initial impact in the peso-dollar exchange rate, Argentina’s usual fear gauge). As it sediments, it’s beginning to leave its mark in opinion polls — all of which were completely off in the first-round vote, by the way — giving Milei an almost secured spot in the expected run-off, along with the possibility that he may even be able to win it in the first round.
While all of this talk is premature, as the second phase of the campaign is formally kicking off, observers and analysts are already trying to predict what a Milei Presidency would look like. Outside of his fan circle, the ultra-liberal economist is scaring the bejesus out of the “círculo rojo” (or group of politicians, business and opinion leaders, journalists, intellectuals and others) that populates the country’s socio-cultural elite. Increasingly there appears to be a sense that, if and when the Austrian economic school-obsessed economist makes it to the Casa Rosada, his policy plan coupled with an irascible temper will lead to an implosion of his administration, perhaps within months of taking office. This also seems absolutely premature, given the general election is still two months away, yet the increased scrutiny surrounding Milei has raised certain troubling elements to the fore. Before digging around a bit further, it is fair to raise an objection presented by his followers: Why are we scrutinising Milei so closely, when Sergio Massa and Patricia Bullrich have several troubling precedents that have become public at some point, and should be brought to the table with equal candour by the media? The answer, I believe, is the novelty of the Milei phenomenon, coupled with the bizarreness of the case.
In his recently published bestseller about Milei, El Loco (“The Crazy One), Noticias magazine journalist Juan Luis González begins by asking the question: Can an unstable nation tolerate an unstable leader? The book, which sold out its first edition and is currently the only (unauthorised) biography about Milei in the world, is a fascinating journey into the history of the man who has come to captivate Argentine society by promising to incinerate the Central Bank and eradicate the pest of corrupt and inefficient politicians. “The caste,” as he refers to the professional political class, is the root cause of all evil, both practical and metaphysical, and Austrian economic theory, coupled with his political orientation, is the antidote. Up to that point, Milei takes a page from the traditional populist’s playbook: a messianic figure that is larger than life promising “magical” solutions while discrediting everyone who thinks differently by labelling them as part of the “caste.” He’s actually an improved version when compared to the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (to name a few right-wing populists) in that beyond his magnetic personality in front of a camera, he’s well-versed in economic theory, even if his positions are one-sided.
As González digs deeper, though, he uncovers a troubling personal story that seriously suggests there may be some mental health issues that should be addressed if indeed Milei were to become Commander-in-Chief. While Bullrich has a past in guerrilla organisation Montoneros and Massa’s had several troubling connections with individuals convicted of corruption, neither appear unfit to deal with situations of extreme duress, even if this hasn’t actually been medically corroborated by a psycho-physical exam, the likes of which are standard in the private sector (and which aren’t for major political posts).
According to the book’s author, Milei is a person that has endured deep solitude throughout his life, suffered domestic violence at the hands of his parents and consistent bullying by his peers. This had led him to developing a father-son relationship with his dog, Conan, to the point where his death triggered an intense depression and desperate reaction by the electoral frontrunner. Not only did Milei clone Conan but, through a medium, he apparently managed to have ‘direct communication’ with him in the afterlife, and later with God himself, who gave him the mission of becoming president and lifting Argentina out of its chronic cycle of decrepitude. Furthermore, among Conan’s clones, whom he dubs his “grandchildren,” he’s built a cabinet that literally acts as his team of counsellors in issues including politics, economics, and foreign policy.
Beyond allegedly having telepathic conversation with living and dead animals, God and historical economists, Milei has an extremely short fuse, quickly escalating into a level of rage that is uncommon in someone expected to lead in times of crisis. According to González, Milei has fought tooth and nail to keep his medical records from being leaked and in private conversations fears being considered a lunatic.
What should the electorate make of all of this? In the first place, nothing at all. As Jaime Durán Barba explains in his weekly columns in Perfil, the voter isn’t interested in what Milei is saying beyond the fact that “he is not like the rest of them” – referring to the political class. As an outsider that is successful by virtue of being an outsider, any and all accusations made against him by traditional actors, including the media, strengthen his position, as when evidence of selling spots on candidate lists throughout the nation became public. Yet it should force us to have a debate about mental health.
González is explicit in that he is not making a diagnosis of Milei’s apparent psychological issues, and whether that should be taken into account before deciding whether to vote for him. He does acknowledge that through his research he developed the certainty that Milei underwent several traumatic circumstances in his life which could affect his judgement. He suggests politicians, as mentioned above, should undergo some level of psycho-physical testing to ensure they are fit to rule.
While it’s not part of the common debate, the issue has been raised in several circumstances. Most recently, regarding age, as in the case of Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. During Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s tenure Noticias revealed she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A piece in Psychology Today by psychologist Guy Winch cites a study that concluded that of the first 37 presidents of the United States, some 27 percent could be concluded to have suffered from mental health issues during their time in office including depression (24 per cent), anxiety disorders (8 per cent), and addiction (eight percent).
Furthermore, whether it is through communication with a dead dog or by mere ideological orientation, how a president decides a certain policy path isn’t up for debate, what ultimately matters is how it is executed. Herein lies the second issue: whether Milei’s proposed reforms would generate a situation of social uprising. Once again, it appears too premature to suggest that and the economist has already shown certain signs of moderation and contemplation regarding some of his policies.
Time will tell if Milei can win the election and later govern the nation. Until then, the man and his circumstances will come increasingly under the spotlight, just as he likes it.