In Hungary, he’s accused of trying to create a “new, mixed, Muslimized” Europe. In Britain, he’s sabotaging Brexit. In the U.S., he manipulates Florida students to campaign for gun control, signs up felons to vote against Roy Moore and stands behind the indictment of Missouri’s Republican governor.
At a time when it seems to be in a global retreat, who is the biggest threat to democracy?
You might argue that it’s Vladimir Putin, who has exploited divisions in Western societies. Some might even say Donald Trump. But in some creepy corners of the internet — and among some public officials who ought to know better — the answer appears to be an 87-year-old Hungarian-American Jew who survived the Nazi occupation of Budapest and went on to success in the world of hedge funds: George Soros.
There is no question that Soros is outspoken, politically progressive and spends generously on causes he cares about, primarily through his Open Society Foundations. Soros famously made a pile of money betting against the British pound in the early 1990s, and Forbes says he’s worth about $25 billion now. That’s plenty rich, though it’s not in the same league as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos – or the Koch brothers, for that matter.
An outsider with strong opinions and the money to pursue them is bound to irritate a certain percentage of any society. That’s understandable. But the focus on Soros has turned into something much darker. From U.S. states to European capitals, Soros has become a one-size-fits-all villain accused of political manipulation, encouraging mass migration and stoking racial tensions.
The most charitable explanation is that he represents one side of the culture wars that define so much of our politics today. But there are also much less charitable explanations: Cynical opportunism. Ignorance.
The Nation’s Eric Alterman argues here for another factor: rank anti-Semitism. It’s hard to think that never plays a part.
Among the first to focus on Soros was Russia, where his initiatives were shut down in 2015, allegedly as a threat to state security and the Russian constitution. In reality, Soros-funded civil society organizations got in Putin’s way.
Now you’ll find Soros vilified by nationalists in power in Central Europe, especially in his native Hungary, as well as in Britain, France — and the United States. On the lunatic fringe, former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke suggests Soros was manipulating Parkland, Florida students in a campaign for gun control. Or how about this Breitbart headline from last year’s Alabama Senate race: Soros Army in Alabama to Register Convicted Felons to Vote Against Roy Moore.
An Alex Jones Infowars piece last August claimed the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia was aimed at imposing martial law, which all started with – wait for it – Soros’ funding of Black Lives Matters. Infowars also claimed Soros was involved in an effort to suppress the vote for Marine LePen in last year’s French presidential election.
This has seeped into the mainstream, as well. In Missouri, Republican Gov. Eric Greitens was indicted last month for felony invasion of privacy for allegedly taking a semi-nude photograph of a blindfolded, bound woman with whom he was having an affair. She claims he threatened to use the photo if she told of the affair.
As the Kansas City Star reported, while lawmakers called for an investigation or Greitens’ resignation, the state Republican Party offered up another explanation: Soros. It claimed the indictment was the result of a “political hit job” by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, who received campaign contributions from a Soros fund.
Last year, Politico reported, Republican members of Congress wrote a series of letters complaining that Soros was trying to push his views into European politics. Soros has long backed Democrats in the United States – he contributed heavily to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and said at the Davos World Economic Forum in January that Trump wants to create a “mafia state.” But Politico also noted — correctly — that his goal of helping build democracy in formerly Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe meshed with what have been traditional Republican foreign policy objectives.
Nowhere is Soros more of a target than in Hungary, where he has been at work for decades. Hungary has struggled with the wave of immigration that has swept across Europe, but Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gone out of his way to demonize Soros for seeking a “Muslimized” Europe. His political party organized a “national consultation” about Soros and a member of parliament spoke about a Christian duty to fight “Satan’s Soros plan.”
It’s hard to say how much of this Orban believes, or whether Soros is just a useful foil on the way to creating a soft form of authoritarianism. And it’s hard to say what’s inside the heads Czech nationalists railing about Soros’ promotion of “supernational governance.”
Then there’s Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party. Farage went off on Soros to Fox News last month, accusing him of trying to sabotage Brexit, and of favoring mass migration. Instead of focusing on Russian meddling, Farage said an “investigation is needed into exactly what Open Society has done.”
But Farage has it exactly backwards. At another time, you could dismiss Clarke, Jones and their ilk as buffoons. Not now, though. We’ve seen where this leads.