George Soros is remarkably busy for an 88-year-old — at least, that’s what his critics say. In just the last couple of years, conspiracy theorists have accused the billionaire philanthropist of toppling the government of Macedonia, staging chemical attacks on children in Syria, fomenting anti-corruption demonstrations in Romania, and having a hand in the murder of a Slovakian investigative journalist.
In the U.S., he’s been falsely accused of bankrolling both antifa and anti-Kavanaugh demonstrations. Even Facebook hired a DC PR firm to discredit its critics by linking them to Soros. In November, President Trump joined the pile-on, publicly entertaining bogus claims that Soros could be bankrolling the migrant “invasion” on the southern border. Trump pushed the theory weeks after a deranged supporter mailed a bomb to Soros’ home in Bedford, New York.
Soros’ support for liberal, pro-democratic initiatives has long made him a favorite subject for right-wing conspiracy theorists in Europe and the U.S., but in the last few years smears against him have increasingly moved beyond blog posts and message boards and into the halls of government. The billionaire can largely thank the land of his birth for that.
Since Europe’s migrant crisis of 2015, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken a fringe, false narrative — that Soros is plotting to undermine nation states through funding large-scale illegal immigration — and made it a core plank of his government’s policies. In doing so — to great electoral success — he’s unleashed the most sustained attack on Soros yet, and created a blueprint for other nationalist governments to follow.
“I do think they learn from one another, unquestionably,” said Leonard Benardo, vice president of the New York-based Open Society Foundations, the nonprofit through which Soros has given billions of dollars to philanthropic causes around the world.
Benardo believes Soros has become the “Rothschild of the 21st century”: a convenient anti-Semitic bogeyman to the growing ranks of nationalist world leaders — from the Philippines to Israel to Russia to Italy to Turkey — embodying the liberal, globalist values they see as a threat to their regimes.
Increasingly, he said, these governments were mimicking each other in using Soros as a catch-all smear against their liberal opponents, so that “anyone who represents anything of a globalist, cosmopolitan nature [is] immediately ridiculed and harangued and maligned and lampooned as being part of the Soros conspiracy.”
“It’s a global phenomenon,” he added.
“An enemy with a face”
Soros has long been a hate figure to right-wingers around the world, from the U.S., where he’s been a major donor to the Democrats, to Russia, which has been unnerved by his efforts to foster “open societies” in former Soviet states. But it’s in Hungary, where Soros was born in 1930, that the attacks have reached a fever pitch in recent years, with the billionaire branded a public enemy by the government and made the explicit target of its successful re-election campaign last spring.
The demonization began after Hungary became a front-line state in Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis, with more than 386,000 migrants passing through the country before the government closed the borders in October. Orban, who envisions Hungary as an “illiberal democracy” and defender of a Christian Europe, immediately adopted a hard-line anti-immigration platform that pitted him against the European Union and its proposed solutions to the crisis.
“He really became a hated figure that you could mobilize the masses against.”
But in Soros, who funds various philanthropic efforts geared toward supporting refugees in Europe, Orban found an even more effective opponent to rail against — “an enemy with a face,” in the words of political scientist Peter Kreko, director of Budapest-based think tank Political Capital Institute.
Since 2015, he said, Orban has embraced and amplified the previously fringe conspiracy theory that Soros was behind a plot to flood Europe with immigrants, relentlessly demonizing him as the shadowy, globalist mastermind behind the myriad external forces that challenge Orban’s brand of nationalism, from the European Union to the United Nations to humanitarian NGOs.
“Soros played this role of the personalized ‘umbrella enemy’ that you can put all your enemies under and say that he is the ultimate puppet master of every bad thing,” Kreko said. “He really became a hated figure that you could mobilize the masses against.”
“Stopping Soros” has become a catch-all justification for Hungary’s efforts to clamp down on civil society, allowing Orban to press ahead with an increasingly authoritarian agenda.
In June, his government passed what it dubbed the “Stop Soros” law, criminalizing NGOs it deems to be supporting illegal immigration by providing assistance to migrants. NGOs slammed the move as a push to clamp down on civil society and place the sector under government control. Hungary has also slapped tough restrictions on a Soros-founded university in Budapest, threatening its continued operation in the country.
“It was not sophisticated at all; it was really coming from the playbook of 20th century propaganda campaigns.”
Ahead of the elections this past April, the government shifted its campaign of character assassination into overdrive, with a propaganda offensive that experts say drew on age-old anti-Semitic tropes.
Open Society says Hungary invoked “anti-Semitic imagery from World War II” in its vilification campaign against Soros, in which Orban railed against the Jewish financier at a rally in March as “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.”
Indeed, Orban’s government mailed out a “national consultation survey” to citizens asking them leading questions about a supposed “Soros plan,” which had allegedly been cooked up with the EU in order “to diminish the importance of the language and culture of European countries to make the integration of illegal immigrants happen sooner.” The government’s election campaign saw the billionaire’s face plastered on billboards, captioned with the slogan “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh,” and emblazoned on bus floors, where it could be trampled underfoot.
“It was not sophisticated at all; it was really coming from the playbook of 20th century propaganda campaigns,” said Kreko.
But it was effective. Condemnation from external groups such as the European Union did nothing to rein in Orban’s campaign, and his government won re-election in a landslide. The following month, Soros’ Open Society Foundations — which says Hungary’s attacks on it are based on a fundamental misrepresentation of its work — relocated its Budapest office to Berlin. The move was a direct response to Orban’s increasingly repressive environment.
“We see that Mr. Soros is basically the political opposition of the government.”
Despite this sustained attack on Soros and Open Society, Orban’s government rejects any suggestion that it has fueled conspiracy theories about the billionaire for political gain. (In March, Orban publicly alleged without proof that Soros likely had a role in the murder of an investigative journalist in neighboring Slovakia.)
Instead, Hungary maintains its campaign against Soros has been a legitimate response to what it sees as his role as a political player, according to government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs.
“We see that Mr. Soros is basically the political opposition of the government,” Kovacs told VICE News. “He’s using his very excessive network of so-called civil organizations, NGOs, to influence in political power. This is a different kind of democracy from what we believe in.”
He said that his government believed that anyone who provided assistance to illegal immigration “is an enemy of public order and is posing a real danger to democracy.”
The nationalist blueprint
The Internet has proven a fertile breeding ground for anti-Soros conspiracies, and has given the Hungarian government’s narrative about the philanthropist an audience far beyond the country’s borders. Now, when nationalist leaders around the world need a scapegoat, they’re increasingly using a familiar playbook to smear Soros as the source of their country’s problems.
In Europe, ruling populists have targeted Soros with attacks that strongly echo Orban’s narrative, from Italy, where Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini claimed in July that Soros wanted to “fill Italy and Europe with migrants,” to Slovakia, where former prime minister Robert Fico blamed the financier for the demonstrations that forced him from power in March.
In Romania, the leader of the country’s ruling party has claimed Soros ordered an assassination attempt and spread corruption allegations against him, while in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week blamed “the famous Hungarian Jew Soros” for orchestrating mass protests against his regime in 2013. Open Society announced Monday that it was wrapping up operations in Turkey in response to the baseless claims.
“I know that this is the age of disinformation; there’s no truth left. But … we don’t have a lot of alternatives.”
Nationalists in the United States, too, have followed suit. In one National Republican Congressional Committee TV spot in Minnesota ahead of this month’s midterms, Soros was pictured behind piles of cash, while a voiceover told voters that “Billionaire George Soros bankrolls ‘the Resistance.’” Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida, suggested on Twitter that Soros was funding the migrant caravan, a claim that Trump himself promoted, even after a pipe bomb was sent to Soros’ suburban New York address.
Some in the president’s circle have gone even further in their vilification: Last month, his attorney Rudy Giuliani retweeted a post that linked Soros to anti-Brett Kavanaugh protests and labeled him “the anti-Christ.”
For Benardo, the burgeoning creep of these fringe conspiracy theories into the mainstream of American politics shows that it’s high time for his organization to push back more forcefully. He said Open Society is determined to call out the falsehoods, hopeful that Soros’ status as a liberal bogeyman “can’t last forever.”
“I know that this is the age of disinformation; there’s no truth left,” he said. “But … we don’t have a lot of alternatives.”
Cover image: Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks speaks during a plenary session at the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels, Belgium April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal