During the days leading up to the victory of “El Loco” Javier Milei in Argentina’s presidential election, I heard many Massa supporters in Buenos Aires saying that there was simply no way Milei could win. “He’s too far out,” they would say. “Too many Argentinians can see through his showmanship and will rise up to vote against him.
Of course, they turned out to be dead wrong. Not only did he win, but he won by more than 10 percent. In a country that has obligatory voting and requires at least a 50-percent-plus-one outcome to win, he proved definitively that a majority of Argentinians approve of his election.
This is a man who has stated openly that he is a tantric sex expert, that he doesn’t believe the military dictatorship of the late-middle 20th century did not actually “disappear” about 30,000 Argentinians, that climate change is a “socialist lie,” who says he will take a figurative chainsaw to social program funding, that he will eliminate the nation’s central bank, legalize the carrying of guns by citizens, legalize the sale of human organs, and “dollarize” the economy (whatever that means).
Argentinians have faced monthly inflation of about 10% every month this past year. Imagine how angry and frustrated that would make you if your grocery bill went up 10% this month, then next month, then the month after that, and on and on — with no end in sight. Do you think you might want an obvious and clear change in leadership? That was the single most important issue that candidates had to address.
So, here’s the first lesson in how to lose to a crazy guy like Milei: put up an opponent that the electorate directly blames for their economic troubles, who represents what they want to change. His opponent was the current economic minister, Sergio Massa, who can fairly be blamed for failing to protect Argentinians’ wallets. How is he supposed to convince the electorate who hates him to vote for him over someone who represents change — any kind of change?
Lesson two is: don’t underestimate the power of celebrity and entertaining madness in this new communications age. Milei has been a fixture on Argentinian television news for the past few years. He’s very much like Donald Trump in that he frequently says outrageous things that many people dismiss as ravings. Milei is also famous for stunts like when he showed up to a street rally with a chainsaw that he waved around in the air as it roared and smoked, crying that he would slash the government. Those moments become memes that are pushed via algorithms to the people who are most likely to be impressed by them and who share them with others like them. This election is more proof that we are in a new era of electronic campaigning in which memes are much more persuasive than campaign rhetoric or policy statements and that the data-driven segmentation and categorization of the electorate allows for much more effective galvanizing of support.
Moreover, we should be convinced by now that what you say isn't nearly important as how entertaining you are. Many voters now see a candidate only through positive or negative memes, rather than on the news. Those voters are just as likely to vote for a candidate because they think she/he is funny than because they have any idea what they will likely do in office.
Lesson three is: don’t believe it when you hear “he/she can’t possibly win.” (I heard that a lot about Donald Trump in 2016.)
It’s easy to see parallels between Argentina 2023 and U.S. 2016. Trump locked onto the feverish anger of those who resented the elevation of a man who was even half black to the White House. As a native of Kansas and that “four corners” area where Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma meet, I know how racist that bloc of Americans is. I believed and expected Donald Trump would win because I knew many people who wouldn’t actually say so would go into the privacy of the voting booth and vote for him — expressly for his racist ravings.
Also, look back at who the opposition put up against him: Hillary Clinton, a divisive and hated political figure that the very same bloc who resented Barack Obama would vote against, along with those who didn’t necessarily like Donald Trump, but who saw him as not another wealthy out-of-touch Washington insider, who was promising to change the country for the better (even if he couldn't explain how).
The Democrats should now be considering all these factors going into 2024. Sure, Joe Biden is actually a great president. But a majority of all Americans don’t like him. We really don't know for sure if they don't like him or just aren't excited about him. Will the Democrats ignore that reality and run Biden anyway, without somehow distinguishing him as an exciting choice? Can he be an exciting choice?
Trump is a nutcase and shouldn’t be elected dog catcher of any place. But he draws attention better than any actual politician has since maybe John Kennedy. The Democrats must find a candidate who represents positive change who can stir up commotion and get the memes shared widely. Or they need to make Biden more exciting and "meme-orable" in positive ways.
Otherwise, we’ll wake up one morning in January 2024 to find our house invaded again.