Argentine's Milei, Italy's Meloni meet as Trump tries to ride populist wave back to power

Trump helped start the trend nearly eight years ago, and appears to be banking on it still being there for him in a likely 2024 rematch with Democrat President Joe Biden.

Published: February 18, 2024 10:39pm

Argentina’s Javier Milei has been called the South American Donald Trump and Italian Giorgia Meloni the female version of the former GOP president. Like Trump, both leaders cast themselves as disruptors who have been critical of their country’s political establishment. 

But when they met last week in Rome, the world stage seemed big enough for both.

Not that there weren’t a few colorful and non-scripted moments.

At one point, amid the pomp and circumstance of an official state visit, Milei and Meloni held each other’s hands and touched foreheads in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a middle-age romcom.

What did Meloni think about her Argentinian counterpart?

She called him “fascinating.”

But the official language coming out of the hour-long meeting lacked any real fireworks.

Mostly of the talk was about boosting the “deep historical and cultural bond” between the countries and developing “new partnerships” related to energy and agriculture. 

Still, the Feb. 12 meeting was significant because the two leaders are on the newest wave of what has been called “global national populism.” 

The trend that started in 2016 with Brexit and the election of Trump, on through the election of Brazil’s now ex-president Jair Bolsonaro (now under investigation for allegedly planning a coup), and to Meloni’s rise to power in late 2022 and Melei’s a year later. 

Trump helped start the trend nearly eight years ago, and appears to be banking on it still being there for him in a likely 2024 rematch with Democrat President Joe Biden. 

Right now, while still in primary mode, much of Trump's campaign rhetoric has focused on the U.S. border crisis and the "witch hunt" of civil cases and four criminal indictments against him.

Still, to win the General Election he will likely have to return, at least in part, to his winning 2016 populist message to heartland voters – that they are being left behind by a global economy and that he can again reverse the trend. 

Italy was an unsurprising destination for Milei’s second international trip since being elected two months ago (the first was to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he delivered a fiery speech warning of the risks of “collectivism” in the west).

Milei stopped in Israel – where he vowed to convert to Judaism – before stopping in Rome on his way back to Buenos Aires. 

It is estimated that 60 percent of the citizens of Argentina – including three of Milei’s four grandparents – are of Italian descent. And there are more ethnic Italians living in Argentina than in any other country. 

Both Milei and Meloni have moved toward the center after taking office, though it’s not clear if those moves are likely to last.

Milei made the most of a brief stop in the Italian capital, paying a visit to his fellow Argentine, Pope Francis before meeting with Meloni. 

The meeting between Milei and Francis had the potential to be awkward.

During his campaign last year, Milei called the pontiff “an imbecile in Rome” and “a defender of bloodthirsty dictators,” but at the Vatican he greeted Francis with a bear hug and gifted him a kind of Argentine cookies the pope is reported to enjoy.

Milei reportedly apologized to Francis for his comments last year, and the pope reportedly dismissed the remarks as “errors of youth” (Milei is in his 50s). 

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