George Soros has been many things: a Holocaust survivor, an immigrant, a financier, a billionaire, and a philanthropist.
But he’s been accused of much more: interfering in Russia, organizing protests against corruption in Romania and gun violence in the US, financing the current migrant caravan in Mexico.
How Soros, who received a pipe bomb in the mail last month, came to be blamed for interfering in societies from Russia to the United States, and many in between, goes back decades. In 2018 in Trump’s United States, it’s reached a fever pitch.
The story of Soros the man is, by now, well known, though perhaps not quite as well known as that of Soros the myth. He was born in 1930 in Hungary, hid out disguised as a Christian during his country’s brief Nazi occupation when he was 14 years old, and studied at the London School of Economics, where he encountered the ideas of philosopher Karl Popper, with whose The Open Society and Its Enemies he was evidently so taken that he named his foundation after it.
He made his money in finance and is charged with “breaking” the Bank of England as one of the speculators who shorted the pound, forcing Britain to pull out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992. But he made his name in philanthropy, beginning with apartheid-era South Africa, where he gave scholarships to black students starting in 1979. He turned back to his native Hungary, then part of the communist-controlled Eastern Bloc, in 1984, where he opened the first Open Society office in Europe.
Throughout the 1990s, Soros, through Open Society, funded student debates, arts, and travel grants. He also funded NGOs that were politically active. “Some of the elite groups that he supported in places like Croatia, Poland, Hungary — they’ve played roles not just in philanthropy but also in politics,” Janine Wedel, a social anthropologist and professor of policy at George Mason University, told BuzzFeed News.
Slovakia’s 1998 Rock the Vote campaign, for example, which ousted prime minister Vladimír Mečiar, was carried out in part by NGOs backed by Open Society.
For the most part, though, Soros was seen as a benefactor, and not a threat, to society throughout the 1990s. Then came the early 2000s.
Three things happened in the early 2000s that began the international vilification of George Soros.
The first came in 2003, when the Rose Revolution in Georgia saw the ousting of Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who became president of Georgia in the 1990s, and the rise of Mikheil Saakashvili, who then became president of the country. Saakashvili was fiercely critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once apparently threatened to hang his Georgian counterpart “by the balls.” Open Society had backed some of the NGOs and political figures involved in the revolution, and one of Saakashvili’s Cabinet members, Alexander Lomaia, had been executive director of the Georgian branch of Open Society. Soros himself has said that his role in Georgia has been greatly exaggerated. But that didn’t matter as much as the fact that he had attracted Putin’s attention.
The second was in 2004, when Soros turned his attention to American politics, donating $27 million in the 2004 election cycle against then-president George W. Bush, who was not available for an interview for this article. Soros called working to oust Bush the “central focus” of his life, and said that Bush’s “with us or against us” rhetoric in the wake of 9/11 reminded him of “the Germans,” adding, “My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me."
In late August of that year, Dennis Hastert, then speaker of the House, appeared on Fox News Sunday to say, “You know, I don’t know where George Soros gets his money. I don’t know where — if it comes overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from … George Soros has been for legalizing drugs in this country. So, I mean, he’s got a lot of ancillary interests out there.” Hastert, who last year was released from prison for illegally structuring bank withdrawals to pay off a student he had sexually abused, did not respond to a request for comment.
And the third thing was that, in 2010 — the same year that Glenn Beck put out three hours of anti-Soros programming on Fox News (Beck declined a request for an interview about where his interest in Soros came from) — a former Soros scholarship student named Viktor Orbán returned to power in Hungary, in the midst of the world economic crisis.
Since then, anti-Soros conspiracy theories have bounced back and forth, across oceans and around the world. In 2011, Soros was accused of funding Occupy Wall Street, a leftist movement in the wake of the financial crisis in the US whose signature demonstration was the occupation of a small park not far from Wall Street. He’d given money to something called the Tides Center, which then gave money to smaller groups, some of which were involved in Occupy Wall Street — for example, the center gave money to Adbusters, which made a poster of a ballerina riding a bull in front of protesters, their faces covered with masks.
But it was in 2015, as hundreds of thousands fled Syria toward Europe, that Orbán turned his attention to Soros. The government put out a questionnaire on the “Soros plan” to pump Europe full of migrants in 2017, and Orbán announced that Soros would be a focus of his reelection campaign, which he won.
His name was back on people’s tongues in the 2016 presidential election, during which he donated $16 million to groups backing Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. And it has stayed there since, with the billionaire being blamed for everything from this fall’s migrant caravan to protests against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Sen. Chuck Grassley, asked if he thought Soros was behind the Kavanaugh protests, said he believed that he was.
Asked by BuzzFeed News how Grassley, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, came to believe that Soros was behind the protests, a spokesperson took apparent umbrage, and implied that the question suggested Grassley was responsible for recent anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. “Sen. Grassley never mentioned Mr. Soros’ religion or ancestry and neither had anything to do with his point. He was simply noting in response to a question the well-established fact that Mr. Soros has contributed financially to organizations that pay protesters.” He did not specify which organizations.
Some have seized on the fact that two protesters who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake about his vote to approve Kavanaugh worked for the Center for Popular Democracy, which does receive Open Society funding (“Elevator Protester Admits She Works for Soros-Funded Organization,” the right-wing Daily Caller’s headline read), equating the funding of organizations through his foundation with personally organizing protests.
Grassley’s spokesperson’s answer didn’t come out of nowhere. Critiques of Soros are often called anti-Semitic, and bashing Soros himself is often understood as an outlet for anti-Semitism.
But is criticizing Soros different from criticizing other political donors? Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, for example, said on Twitter that it is a “double standard” to consider criticism of Soros anti-Semitic but not criticism of Sheldon Adelson, the businessperson and philanthropist who gave millions to the Trump inauguration committee.
The difference is that Soros is criticized for the money he gives, but also for money that he has never given and is never going to give. Soros the donor is criticized around the world, but so, too, is Soros the specter, the outsider who is actively working to undermine the very fabric of society.
And here enters a variety of anti-Semitic tropes that go back decades, if not centuries.
“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world,” Orbán said in a March campaign speech.
Some, including leaders of Hungarian Jewish groups, called this an anti-Semitic dog whistle, playing on the old trope of the wandering, rootless, mendacious Jew, sowing discord with ill-gotten wealth. The Hungarian government, after the election, deflected the criticism by pointing out that the Israeli government congratulated Orbán on his win. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also a Soros foe. The billionaire funds Human Rights Watch, which is critical of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.
That criticism doesn’t apply only to Hungary.
“In far-right circles worldwide, Soros’ philanthropy often is recast as fodder for outsized conspiracy theories, including claims that he masterminds specific global plots or manipulates particular events to further his goals,” the Anti-Defamation League wrote last month. “Many of those conspiracy theories employ longstanding anti-Semitic myths, particularly the notion that rich and powerful Jews work behind the scenes, plotting to control countries and manipulate global events.”
How do the tropes, the rumors, the myths travel from Russia to Hungary to Israel to the United States?
In part, there are formal channels. Take, for example, member of Congress turned lobbyist Connie Mack IV. Mack was in the House for almost a decade — from 2005 to 2013 — and cosponsored such acts as “Repeals the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010” and “Prohibiting Taxpayer Funding of Abortion.” He was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees. After he lost a Senate race to Democrat Bill Nelson in 2012, he became a lobbyist. He now lobbies for, among others, the Hungarian government, and Hungarian human rights groups accuse him of spreading anti-Soros sentiment in Congress — he once called a resolution condemning Orbán “simply another addition to the negative campaign against Hungary pursued by George Soros’ network of influence.”
Mack did not respond to a request for comment.
Social media has proved a greenhouse for anti-Soros memes.
Facebook and Twitter both displayed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s post that Soros shouldn’t be allowed to buy this election, a meme he deleted after Soros received a bomb in the mail.
McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson told CNN and the Washington Post that McCarthy “has and will always condemn in the strongest possible way violence or any acts of attempted violence.”
Most of the Soros critics contacted for this piece did not respond to requests for comment on such questions as “When did Soros first come to your attention?” and “Why do you think Soros is worth talking about?”
Wedel, the George Mason professor, suggested the fascination with Soros is similar to the case of O.J. Simpson, the football star turned alleged murderer whose case Americans watched with great attention. “Why did the episode occupy such a big space in the public imagination? Because it taps into so many themes that Americans care about, like how they feel about race, celebrities, high-powered lawyers, sports figures, impunity for the wealthy, intermarriage, spousal abuse. It resonated so deeply because it tapped into all these veins of latent biases and divisive narratives.”
Soros, she said, is, in a way, like that. He was born elsewhere (unless one is speaking about Hungary, in which case he left and did well for himself, its own issue). He’s a self-made billionaire. He’s Jewish. And he’s perceived as a politically powerful person.
“Myths resonate. That’s why they work. They resonate with some … with people’s experiences and imagination.” ●