Perhaps the easiest way to understand the right’s 15-year preoccupation with George Soros is that our ever-heightening polarization requires a billionaire cartoon villain to hover malevolently over Team Bad.
Did the U.S. president really just accuse Soros of paying for anti–Brett Kavanaugh protesters? You bet. Just like a U.S. president’s key adviser in 2010 accused the Tea Party of being the creation of the Koch brothers, a “grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”
But while the Charles Koch–George Soros comparison is far deeper than most people would suspect—both are amateur (and published) philosophers, both are fans of Austrian economist-philosophers Karl Popper and F. A. Hayek, both entered the scrum of two-party politics late in life, after several decades of philanthropy more focused on ideas and individual issues—the Soros caricature has extra resonance in the battle to redefine the modern GOP.
He’s a “globalist,” as Breitbart News would put it, a sovereignty-hating internationalist financier, and meddler into the affairs of too many. He’s a punching bag for resurgent populists worldwide, and has been for a quarter century.
Anti-Soros paranoia, of the kind casually bandied about Friday by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley—who said he tended to believe that Soros had paid the sexual-assault survivors who confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator—has long been a bellwether for authoritarian-flavored nationalism abroad. What’s relatively new is that Americans are getting in on the game.
As a Hungarian-born Jew and naturalized U.S. citizen who made billions betting against national currencies, Soros was an easy target in the 1990s for corrupt pols from Bratislava to Kuala Lumpur. “We do not want to say that this is a plot by the Jews,” then–Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad famously said after Soros helped devalue the ringgit, "but in reality it is a Jew who triggered the currency plunge, and coincidentally Soros is a Jew.” Did he mention that Soros is Jewish?
(Soros, who has an almost perverse yen for self-criticism, would a decade later warn of the “danger of excessive capital movement” while sitting literally at Mahathir’s side. He has also said that he’s “very concerned about my own role because the new anti-Semitism holds that the Jews rule the world … As an unintended consequence of my actions, I also contribute to that image.”)
Soros’s Open Society foundations and Central European University campuses in struggling post-Cold War countries were so disproportionately well-funded compared with all other philanthropical outlets that they couldn’t help but become competing power centers. Yes, he was delivering water to besieged Sarajevans and free-market textbooks to students poisoned by communism. But in the process he was also effectively funding the liberal intelligentsia and political opposition. His fingerprints on the region’s color revolutions were both real and exaggerated by conspiracists.
Back when I was covering the post-Communist transitions of 1990s Central Europe, my journalistic colleagues and I had a crudely accurate rule of thumb: The more a government criticized Soros, the lousier it was at meeting its citizens’ needs. Soros-bashing, we thought then, was the last resort of unreconstructed apparatchiks, soon to be swept away by a younger generation untainted by dictatorial habits. Boy, were we wrong.
The modern swing toward nationalist populism arguably started in Soros’s native Hungary. Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats)—initially an anti-communist, Western-friendly environmentalist movement that did not admit members over the age of 35—made the fateful decision in the early 1990s to turn from liberal integrationism to conservative nationalism. Once a regional leader in economic and political freedom, Hungary under Fidesz Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has become the leading demonstration project of ethno-populism.
That means Soros, who was already treated with the wariness that greets wealthy emigres worldwide, has now become enemy number one in his homeland. New legislation that makes it illegal to assist asylum-seekers is referred to casually as the Stop Soros law, since he and his foundations are always championing minority rights and cultural assimilation. Orbánism—which can charitably be characterized as a reassertion of national sovereignty at the expense of transnational organizations such as the European Union—now rules Poland, and is growing in Scandinavia, German-speaking Mitteleurope, and the Balkans.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, loves what’s going on. He is now trying to organize a trans-European cadre of specifically anti-Soros nationalists. “It’s war,” he explained on a British radio show this summer. “War is politics by other means. Well, politics is war by other means. This is a war for control. This is a war for the little guy. They fight, look at Soros and these other NGOs … they destroy you.”
Bannon isn’t entirely wrong. Soros is not just an anti-nationalist, he’s someone who devoted a chapter of his 2003 book The Bubble of American Supremacy to overcoming the obstacle of sovereignty when using righteous military force against villains abroad. The man who once broke the British pound is not only ideologically opposed to Bannon’s beloved Brexit, he’s pouring some of his considerable wealth into holding a new referendum to reverse it.
Just because the populists are paranoid, that is to say, doesn’t mean Soros isn’t the most important nonpolitician standing against their goals. And with Republicans now tacking nationalist, it was only a matter of time until Soros-mania penetrated the mainstream.
For too long, American political observers assumed that Washington was somehow immune to the National Front–style political cocktail of xenophobia, welfare statism, and hostility to the post–World War II institutions that promoted inter-Western peace. Democrats campaigned against trade, Republicans against illegal immigration, but you always knew they’d revert to the “Washington consensus” once in office. Donald Trump drove a steamroller through those insincerities, and now Orbán has gone from D.C.’s diplomatic doghouse to the big kids’ table.
The only surprise about Trump tweeting about Soros Friday was that it took this long.
What were once the fever dreams of FrontPage Magazine and chalkboard-era Glenn Beck may soon be emanating directly from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As is usually the case, what happens in Central Europe is stubbornly refusing to stay there.