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The Lion, the chainsaw and the populist: The rallies of Argentina’s Javier Milei

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Batman and the Joker, a man decked out in a full-body lion costume, and another whose head and arms have been replaced by chainsaws. This isn’t Carnival or Comic-Con, but rather the outlandish campaign rally for Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei.

In just a few short years, the right-wing populist Milei went from being a television talking head who garnered high ratings with his unrestrained outbursts against a “political caste” he blamed for Argentina’s perennial economic woes to a frontrunner for the presidency. He even dabbled in cosplay, dressing up as “General AnCap,” short for anarcho-capitalist, at a 2019 event.

Just as his candidacy started as a made-for-television spectacle, his followers picked up the baton and have often turned rallies into opportunities to show their devotion to their candidate using props that go viral on social media.

Shortly after he first appeared on television, the self-described libertarian grew a cult-like following among those drawn to his no-nonsense style. His appeal seems to lie in his ability to channel anger that Argentines feel against the ruling class amid red-hot triple-digit inflation and rising poverty.

Once seen as a sideshow in Argentine politics, Milei managed to parlay his success as a talking head into a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, Argentina’s lower house of Congress, in 2021. He then launched what looked like a long-shot presidential bid, but rocked Argentina’s political establishment when he received the most votes in the country’s August primaries, a national contest seen as a massive poll of voter preferences.

Milei was predicted to have an edge for the October vote, but finished second, with 30% of the vote, almost seven points below Economy Minister Sergio Massa.

Milei and Massa are facing off in the Nov. 19 runoff, and pre-election polls show a virtual tie with a large number of undecideds who will be key in deciding the race.

Often called Argentina’s Donald Trump, Milei espouses a mixture of love for the ideals of capitalism with socially conservative policies, including an opposition to abortion, which Argentina legalized in 2020.

Many of his followers have embraced the Trump comparison. “Make Argentina Great Again” hats and T-shirts are a common sight at his events, a reference to Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” That’s hardly the only U.S.-inspired reference.

The yellow Gadsen flag with a rattlesnake and the words “don’t tread on me” is a historical U.S. symbol often associated with the libertarian right, which Milei and his supporters have adopted.

Some followers also use props to mimic the chainsaw that Milei has often held up at rallies to symbolize what he wants to do with state spending.

“I didn’t get involved politically at all in the past,” said Martín Argañaraz, a 47-year-old artisan, who carried a chainsaw made out of cardboard at a recent Milei rally in Buenos Aires. “What brought me here is seeing how politicians are getting richer and richer.”

Some of Milei’s loyalists dress up as him, while others don lion masks, because the candidate often compares himself to the king of the jungle.

Wherever Milei goes, a small army of entrepreneurial street hawkers follow, selling merchandise inspired by the economist whose followers have lovingly nicknamed him “the wig,” a reference to his signature unkempt hair.

Polls show that the word Argentines – both his supporters and opponents — most often associate with Milei is “crazy.”

Sebastián Borrego, 51, and his 12-year-old son traveled 21 miles from their hometown to attend a Milei rally in the capital last month. In a show of support, Borrego wore a homemade lion mask.

“We need a leader who can take us to a new way of life that we Argentinians need,” Borrego roared. “The fight is just getting started.” ____

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