Conspiracy theorists this week have suggested that the Florida teens rallying for gun control measures after surviving last week’s school shooting are being manipulated by billionaire donor George Soros. This lunacy shouldn’t be surprising.
Soros has been a particular boogeyman for the American right since the 1990s and more so since the late 2000s, when he became a favorite target on Fox News, particularly of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. More recently, Soros has been accused of bankrolling movements including Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. (It is true that Soros’ Open Society Foundations have funded a number of liberal groups in the U.S., some of which were involved in these protests, but that’s very different from him—as some claim—planning the protests or paying people to show up at them.) Even Colin Kaepernick has been accused of being a Soros plant. Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, during last December’s special election, accused Soros of promising a liberal “sexual” agenda, adding that Soros’ culture is “not our American culture. Soros comes from another world that I don’t identify with.” He added that the Jewish Soros is “going to the same place that people who don’t recognize God and morality and accept his salvation are going.”
But Americans might not be aware that Soros-phobia is a global phenomenon. Soros has been a target of the Russian government and media since the mid-2000s, when he was accused of fomenting the “color revolutions” that ousted Russian-backed governments in Georgia and Ukraine. The Hungarian-born Soros’ foundation did fund civil society groups in a number of formerly Communist countries, including some that were involved in these revolutions, though again, that doesn’t mean that the sentiments driving these movements weren’t genuine.
Back in the days when Republicans described Russia as America’s biggest geopolitical threat, and Democrats were incredulous at the notion, it seemed ironic that the American right and the Putinists shared a fixation on Soros. In the Trump era, the relationship between conservatives and Russians is, shall we say, a bit murkier, and the Soros-phobia of recent years seems like a harbinger of the arrival of Putin-style politics on the American political scene.
These days, Soros-phobia seems to be everywhere. His donation to a group seeking to keep Britain in the EU sparked controversy among Brexit backers. Pakistan recently ordered the local affiliate of Open Society Foundations to close, without explanation.
Nowhere has Soros-phobia dominated the political debate as much as in his native Hungary. There, as Foreign Policy’s Emily Tamkin recently wrote, “Soros the myth, the ghost, the star of every conspiracy, looms larger than ever.” The increasingly authoritarian right-wing leader Viktor Orban’s government launched an ad campaign last year accusing Soros of orchestrating efforts to settle refugees and migrants in Hungary. (While the ads themselves don’t mention Soros’ Judaism, many of the posters have been defaced with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti.) Orban has also backed legislation known as the Stop Soros bill, aimed at shutting down the Soros-founded Central European University and, more recently, targeting any nongovernmental organization that it deems to be supporting illegal immigration.
Soros is a scapegoat for a government that has been condemned both at home and abroad for its anti-immigrant politics and undermining of the rule of law, so it was dispiriting to see Britain’s Telegraph citing the Hungarian government’s campaign in an opinion piece condemning Soros’ anti-Brexit activities. It also cited the fact that Russia and Uzbekistan banned the OSF as evidence against Soros.
The Telegraph piece is reminiscent of a letter sent last year by six U.S. senators led by Republican Mike Lee, which asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to investigate claims in the Macedonian state media that Soros and the U.S. State Department had worked together to undermine governments and promote left-wing causes in Macedonia and Albania.
Given the not-so-subtle anti-Semitic undertones in much of the anti-Soros activism, it’s also alarming to see it so enthusiastically embraced by the current government of Israel. The Israeli right has criticized Soros for some time now over his support for the liberal pro-peace group J Street and organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that regularly criticize Israeli policies. More recently, Netanyahu has accused Soros of being behind the campaign against his government’s controversial plan to deport African migrants. The prime minister’s son Yair spread an anti-Semitic meme that suggested Soros was behind the ongoing corruption allegations against the Netanyahu family. Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer both endorsed Yair’s attack on the 87-year-old Holocaust survivor.
The notion that Soros promotes his political agenda in countries around the world isn’t exactly wrong. He’s given money to candidates in the U.S. and provided support to groups that oppose government policies in other countries. He would describe what he’s promoting as small-d democratic values and liberalism rather than a particular political agenda, but those values are not exactly uncontested, especially these days. But he’s relatively upfront about his activities in contrast to his main enemies, and the attacks on him often seem less motivated by what he’s done than what he represents.
Soros is an easy target, and not just because he’s a rich Jew with liberal political beliefs. With his background in finance (the “man who broke the Bank of England” had a controversial career as a currency speculator), his intellectualism (Open Society Foundations is named after the best-known work of his hero, the philosopher Karl Popper), and jet-setting cosmopolitanism, he checks virtually every box of what the world’s current crop of authoritarian populists hate.