Back in the days when I worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, covering the politics and societies of a vast expanse of territory stretching from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan, hardly a day went by without my encountering the good works of George Soros. It was in Prague, my home base, where the Hungarian-born financier began as a backer of worthy causes by presciently supporting Charter 77, the pro-democracy movement led by the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel. My boyfriend at the time hailed from neighboring Slovakia, a country whose authoritarian leader, Vladimir Meciar, had been brought down in 1998, partly through the dedicated work of groups funded by Soros’ Open Society Foundations (OSF). Another ex took his graduate degree from Central European University, the Budapest-based institution founded by Soros and which is currently under threat of being expelled from the country by right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
By the time I finished my European tour of duty, it had become axiomatic that, were I to encounter a democracy activist in Baku, a lesbian-rights campaigner in Bishkek, or a press freedom advocate in Belgrade, more likely than not they would have been beneficiaries of a Soros grant, scholarship, or in his employ. To take but one example of his generosity and foresight usually overlooked both by his detractors and fans, he is by far the largest private benefactor to the cause of the Roma—those long-persecuted, socially excluded, forgotten people of Europe.
Soros was remarkably clairvoyant about the vast amounts of money, expertise, and political commitment that would be necessary to repair the damage Communism had wrought on Central and Eastern Europe. At a 1989 conference in Potsdam, just months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Soros proposed a Marshall Plan for the region. He was, he later recalled, “literally laughed at.” So Soros did what he has since repeatedly done upon encountering a problem that no one seemed intent on fixing: He shelled out his own money.
Over the course of the subsequent three decades, Soros spent billions of dollars funding organizations and initiatives devoted to promoting liberal democracy, independent media, good government, transparency, and pluralism across the former Soviet space. It was all work that the United States and its allies in Western Europe should have been funding, but, as a consequence of the post-Cold War hangover, shortsightedly scrimped. A Holocaust survivor, Soros personally experienced the fragile nature of democracy, and rightly worried that the region could revert back to its dark traditions unless the West consolidated democracy, human rights, the rule of law and market economies. Almost 30 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, his fears look evermore prescient.
“The system of robber capitalism that has taken hold in Russia is so iniquitous that people may well turn to a charismatic leader promising national revival at the cost of civil liberties,” Soros wrote in 1997, three years before a former KGB colonel named Vladimir Putin would be plucked from relative obscurity to become president of that benighted land. “As things stand, it does not take very much imagination to realize that the global open society that prevails at present is likely to prove a temporary phenomenon.”
Obviously, America could greatly use the steadfast defender of political inquiry and free thought that George Soros was, and continues to be, in Eastern Europe. But here in America, Soros chose another route, to support a team rather than a mission. And on that team are some of the forces of illiberalism that threaten to rip apart the open society here in the same way that those on the other end of the political spectrum are ripping it apart in Europe.
Soros’ advocacy of what his mentor, the Viennese philosopher Karl Popper, termed the “open society,” has made him a bogeyman of the nationalist European right and its current enabler in the Kremlin. Beginning in the early 1990s, when the right-wing prime minister of the Czech Republic (and present-day Putin pal), Vaclav Klaus, forced Central European University to decamp from its Prague campus to Budapest, Soros has been a thorn in the side of the provincial, the xenophobic, the illiberal, and the plain old corrupt of the post-Communist world. To this day, there are few better indicators of a European politician’s commitment to basic liberal democratic principles than the degree to which he blames Soros for his country’s woes. After a journalist who had been investigating a corruption ring around then-Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was murdered earlier this year, Fico blamed Soros for the crime, on the grounds that “we all know what he is doing in this region.” Former Reason editor Matt Welch recently wrote that, during his time covering Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, “The more a government criticized Soros, the lousier it was at meeting its citizens’ needs.”
As a wealthy Jewish financier, it is inevitable that many of the attacks on Soros from European quarters would be laced with anti-Semitic insinuations. Nowhere has this nasty phenomenon been more apparent than in his native Hungary, where, in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz party have transformed Soros into Emmanuel Goldstein, the target of a nationwide Two Minutes Hate, replete with giant billboards of the grinning billionaire and photos of his face laminated onto the floors of trams. Soros, according to the Orbán propaganda campaign, seeks nothing less than to destroy Hungary from within by overrunning it with Muslim refugees; last year, a Fidesz MP invoked “The Christian duty to fight against the Satan/Soros Plan.” Weeks before the April parliamentary election, in a stemwinder calling upon Hungarians to “fight against what the empire of George Soros is doing to Hungary,” Orbán elaborated that the nation must:
fight against an opponent which is different from us. Their faces are not visible, but are hidden from view; they do not fight directly, but by stealth; they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.
This unmitigatedly anti-Semitic tirade shows how a campaign ostensibly focused against a single man implicates Jews everywhere. After winning a third consecutive term, the Hungarian government pushed through a package of legislation aimed at curtailing the work of OSF (dubbed the “Stop Soros” laws) which has led the foundation to relocate its Budapest operations to Berlin. CEU is in the process of decamping to Vienna.
In the heady days of the 1990s, Soros, like the West in general, was riding high politically and financially. He had made billions of dollars betting against the British pound and his philanthropic projects in Central and Eastern Europe appeared to be bearing fruit as the region began the process of integrating into Western institutions. Michael Lewis, in a 1994 New Republic profile, applied the language of currency speculation to Soros’ investment in democratic liberalism, noting that he had taken “a large long position in Eastern European intellectuals,” a position that, at the time, appeared profitable. (At least one of Soros’ philanthropic investments—an Oxford scholarship for a young Hungarian law student named Viktor Orbán—did not pay off.)
The global rise of populism and right-wing nationalism over the past decade, however, has given Soros reason to reflect upon his record promoting the open society. This past summer, The New York Times Magazine published a sympathetic profile of Soros, festooned with a photograph of its droopy-eyed subject staring plaintively at the camera. “Soros is confronting the possibility that the goal to which he has devoted most of his wealth and the last chapter of his life will end in failure,” wrote author Michael Steinberger. “Not only that: He also finds himself in the unsettling position of being the designated villain of this anti-globalization backlash, his Judaism and career in finance rendering him a made-to-order phantasm for reactionaries worldwide.” In an approving tweet of the piece, Soros remarked, “I must be doing something right to look at who my enemies are.”
Pride in his enemies has been a constant refrain of Soros throughout his career, at times a smug confirmation of his own virtue. “I have by now a very great number of devoted enemies,” he told Lewis in 1994. “I am much happier with my enemies than I am with my friends.” In an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, Soros boasted, “I’m proud of my enemies. When I look at the enemies I have all over the world, I must be doing something right.” After spending over three decades immersed as a player in the world of international politics, Soros has indeed amassed an impressive list of enemies, one that reads like a who’s who of tyrants, genocidaires and second-rate scumbags: Vladimir Putin, former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, to name just a handful.
In the United States, where he is one of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party and left-wing causes more generally, Soros has also collected a coterie of right-wing enemies, not least of them the current president of the United States. When, in the midst of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation battle, a pair of female sexual assault victims confronted Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake in an elevator and screamed at him for four minutes, conservatives pointed out that one of the women serves as executive director of an organization—the Center for Popular Democracy—which received $1.5 million from Open Society in 2016 and 2017 alone.
It was with this factoid in mind that, on the eve of the Kavanaugh confirmation vote the following day, Trump tweeted:
The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love! #Troublemakers
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2018
“I’m sorry but the ‘Soros is paying them’ trope from the president of the United States is … wow,” gasped New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman. “No, George Soros isn’t paying Kavanaugh protesters,” read the headline of a Washington Post “Fact Checker” column. After Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, in response to a question from a Fox Business host about Soros paying protestors, ambiguously replied, “I have heard so many people believe that. I tend to believe it,” Atlantic staff writer Edward-Isaac Dovere characterized the exchange thusly:
Fox News host asks leading Republican senator if he believes in conspiracy theory that a rich Jewish boogeyman is making women claim to have been raped and assaulted; he (and the president of the United States) say yes: https://t.co/BLVqlgc3K0
— Edward-Isaac Dovere (@IsaacDovere) October 5, 2018
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt called Grassley’s remark an “anti-Semitic smear,” elaborating, “The notion that George Soros is stirring up artificial protest is one of the biggest anti-Semitic tropes in the world today. A public official can’t claim it’s an innocent observation about someone who happens to be Jewish.” And in a piece for The Daily Beast titled, “There’s Been a George Soros for Every Era of Anti-Semitic Panic,” Spencer Ackerman declared “We may one day look back on this era as the Soros Age of anti-Semitism.”
But as a matter of simple factual accuracy, the assertion by Trump and other conservatives that Soros had “paid” individuals who protested the Kavanaugh appointment was true. No, he had not signed personal checks to the protesters. But that objection is pure semantics. Soros has, through his philanthropic organs, donated substantial sums of money to the groups that organized the anti-Kavanaugh demonstrations, including the one which staged the most high-profile of them all: the live-televised elevator confrontation. And according to an analysis undertaken by former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q. Nomani, “At least 20 of the largest groups” involved in the protests “have been Open Society grantees.”
If the substantive content of Trump’s claim could be faulted for anything, it should not be for supposedly coded anti-Semitism, but rather the cynical attempt to delegitimize protest itself as unrepresentative of popular sentiment. Trump has established a dichotomy in the minds of his supporters whereby those who oppose his policies are not fellow Americans but members of a “mob” in cahoots with “the fake news media” and other traitorous malefactors. That said, it is far from irrelevant that many or even some of the protesters, who were attempting to override the constitutional process of representative democracy through pressure techniques, were professional political activists deriving part of their salary from George Soros’ largesse. In one of the countless pieces accusing Trump and other conservatives of anti-Semitism for their criticism of Soros, a writer for the website Jewish Currents proclaimed that, “The power of protest lies in its credibility as the voice of public opinion.” The use of the definite article in this sentence is highly revealing. The author—like an increasing number of Americans who have decided that, having inhibited their preferred political outcomes, the Electoral College and the United States Senate should be radically altered if not abolished—locates political legitimacy in protesters rather than democratic institutions. This is not the logic of republican democracy. Rather, it is the logic of the mob.
With Soros being one of several prominent Trump critics targeted by an attempted mail bomber last month, and in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Americans—Jews and gentile alike—have become more alert to the poison of anti-Semitic rhetoric and where it can lead. Like any discussion about a billionaire liberal Jew heavily involved in politics and public policy, debates over Soros will be freighted with sensitivities over history, stereotypes, and innuendo. Yet there is a deep problem at play in the left’s umbrageous response to criticism of Soros, one which illuminates tensions at work within his extensive philanthropic efforts.
The American conservative critique of George Soros carries a different valence than the European right-wing nationalist one, and for two reasons. The first is rooted in simple geography. When the government of Hungary, a country from where over 600,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz with the connivance of a local gendarmerie whose efficiency impressed even the SS, launches an all-of-government crusade against a prominent Jewish figure, and does so in the midst of an already extensive campaign of Holocaust revisionism encompassing the creation of new historical institutes, museums, history textbooks, and a memorial in Budapest’s most prominent public square dedicated to whitewashing the country’s past crimes, it is unquestionably anti-Semitic.
The mere mention of George Soros’ name in connection with the many political outfits he funds is not intrinsically anti-Semitic.
Why? Because it is clearly part of a large, concerted, overtly anti-Semitic campaign of historical revisionism, which aims to demonize Jews while at the same time whitewashing atrocities committed against them, on behalf of people who claim a direct historical descent from the perpetrators of those atrocities.
When, on the other hand, American conservatives, who claim no such blood-and-soil fascist pedigree, and operate in a completely different socio-cultural-political environment, assert that George Soros generously funds a variety of partisan Democratic and left-wing organizations—a well-documented fact, despite the protestations of The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker”—well, it certainly has the potential for being anti-Semitic, if those conservatives deploy traditionally anti-Semitic tropes. But the mere mention of George Soros’ name in connection with the many political outfits he funds is not intrinsically anti-Semitic. Many American conservatives oppose Soros not because he’s Jewish. They oppose him because he’s liberal.
The second reason why the American debate over George Soros differs from that in Europe concerns the contrasting nature of the man’s activities on both continents. In Europe, Soros is mostly funding politically neutral initiatives that further Karl Popper’s vision of the open society. If it is right-wing nationalist governments and populist movements that more often find themselves the subject of criticism by OSF, it’s because those governments and movements currently pose the greatest threat to Europe’s open societies. In the United States, however, Soros is a major funder of partisan politics; according to Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service records analyzed by The New York Times, he has personally contributed more than $75 million to Democratic candidates and committees. Through his Open Society Foundations, the second-biggest philanthropic institution in the United States, he funds a multitude of explicitly left-wing causes. Soros’ lifetime spending through OSF ($32 billion) vastly outpaces that of the libertarian Koch brothers ($2 billion). Yet while both Soros and the Kochs are regularly subjected to hoary and conspiratorial vilifications by their political adversaries, the Kochs receive none of the deference Soros gets from the mainstream media.
Over the past two decades, Soros has revolutionized an “aggressively political approach to philanthropy” in the words of Benjamin Soskis of the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. That makes Soros “fair game” in the world of American politics, a man whose beliefs and record should be open to careful scrutiny. And it means that those who criticize him here in the United States cannot be so easily likened to the nationalists, racists, and kleptocrats who comprise his foremost critics in Europe.
George Soros is not the devilish puppet master of right-wing caricature. If there is anyone who proves the exception to Matthew 19:24—that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God—it is he. Soros can rightfully claim to have done more good, for more people, than the vast majority of his fellow men. But just as Soros is not a sinister mastermind intent on destroying Western civilization, neither is he the high-minded, blameless victim of left-wing hagiography.
In his interview with The New York Times Magazine, Soros “said his main goal as a political activist was to see a return to bipartisanship, a surprising claim in light of his lavish support for the Democrats.” He also lamented the leftward direction of the Democratic Party. “I’m opposed to the extreme left,” Soros said. “It should stop trying to keep up with the extremists on the right.” After a deranged Trump supporter sent a pipe bomb to Soros’ estate in Bedford, New York, the philanthropist’s youngest son, Alexander, penned a piece for The New York Times in which he offered his own paean to the old-fashioned ideals of bipartisanship and civility. “We must find our way to a new political discourse that shuns the demonization of all political opponents,” Soros fils implored.
Yet for all his wistful reminiscences of those bygone days when Republicans and Democrats reached across the aisle, George Soros is an unlikely spokesperson for the virtues of rhetorical and political moderation. Long before a Manhattan real estate developer bellowed about “locking up” Hillary Clinton, Soros had adopted the language of political delegitimization and vilification. “When I hear President Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ it reminds me of the Germans,” George Soros said in 2003. “My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me.” That same year, aping the language of Bush administration war planners salivating over the downfall of Saddam Hussein, Soros called for “regime change” in Washington.
Soros repeated the Nazi analogy in a 2004 profile written by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, and extended it to other members of the Bush administration. The public statements of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Soros remarked, “reminded me of Germany, under the Nazis. It was the kind of talk that Goebbels used to use to line the Germans up. I remember, I was 13 or 14. It was the same kind of propaganda about how ‘We are endangered’ and ‘We have to be united.’” Skating dangerously close to the sort of anti-Semitic innuendo he and his defenders justly decry whenever it impugns him, Soros told Mayer that, “Bush was just chosen as a figurehead, an acceptable face for a sinister group. Cheney is the Capo.” He would ultimately spend a then-unprecedented $27 million against Bush’s re-election.
Soros often invokes his personal story as a young boy who escaped the Nazis and then the Communists to explain his political and philanthropic motivations. Born György Schwartz, he imbibed what would become his cosmopolitan and universalist outlook from his father, Tivadar, a prominent Budapest lawyer and secular Jew. Tivadar was a believer in Esperanto, the artificial language that he and other idealists hoped would become a global lingua franca. (“Soros,” the de-Judaized familial name, means “to soar” in Esperanto.) “The people in the Weimar Republic also thought everything would stay the same,” Soros told Mayer, faulting Americans for their political quiescence. “I have a particular sensitivity to these matters, because I lived under both Nazi and Communist occupation.”
The first time Soros was the subject of a New Yorker profile, in 1995, he was making the transition from moneyman to would-be public intellectual. “What Soros wanted, more than anything, was to be heard,” wrote Connie Bruck, displaying the skepticism her journalistic colleagues would relinquish once Soros became the most important institutional funder of the American left. “He was gambling that he would be able to translate celebrity status in one field (finance) into another (public policy); that celebrityhood was, essentially, genetic.” As a young man, Bruck wrote, Soros had hoped to “become another John Maynard Keynes or Albert Einstein,” and he even came up with his own General Theory of Reflexivity, consciously meant to evoke the famous theorem of relativity devised by the latter genius. Soros’ concept, which is not quite so profound, essentially postulates that financial markets are constantly being affected by the imperfect knowledge of those who participate in them. It is an insight that also informs his pursuit of Karl Popper’s open society, which hinges upon the conviction that, because no one possesses the ultimate answers to humanity’s conundrums, individuals must be free to investigate and ask uncomfortable or unpopular questions.
Soros, Bruck sensed, was continually “hung up” that more people did not take his ideas seriously. She wrote bemusedly of his “quest for public attention,” quoting a participant at a 1993 conference the billionaire had sponsored and at which he insisted upon delivering a paper. “A lot of people were sitting there shaking their heads,” this person remembered, “but he was paying the bills.” Soros was greatly disappointed when, upon meeting Bill Clinton for the first time, the president was more interested to glean stock tips than hear about the deteriorating situation in the former Yugoslavia. “He just wanted to please me as a donor,” Soros complained. “It happens a lot.” A decade later, in the lead-up to the Iraq War, Soros challenged Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to a public debate. To Soros’ dismay, Wolfowitz never responded to the offer. Over the summer of 2004, Soros went on a 12-city, $3 million, anti-Bush speaking tour, a bout of superciliousness that irked the campaign of the actual Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry.
Soros has also authored 14 portentously titled books, few of which are likely to be remembered. (Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, in a review titled “The Amateur,” panned his 1998 tome The Crisis of Global Capitalism as “embarrassingly banal.”) “Money is just a tool for him,” a friend of Soros told Mayer. “It’s how he manipulates a lot of things in his life.” When Mayer asked Soros “to name one thing in the world that he wished he could have,” he plaintively replied, “I want my ideas to be heard.” It seemed, increasingly, that Soros was suffering from a condition afflicting many obscenely wealthy people: He desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a public intellectual, but did not have anything very profound to say.
Despite his best (and munificent) efforts, the American people didn’t listen to Soros in 2004 and re-elected George W. Bush. Soros was distraught—and increasingly unhinged. In his 2006 book, The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror, Soros doubled-down on the Hitler and Stalin analogies to describe the darkness descending upon America. “The Bush administration has been able to improve on the techniques used by the Nazi and Communist propaganda machines by drawing on the innovations of the advertising and marketing industries,” he wrote. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos the following year, he stated that “America needs to follow the policies it has introduced in Germany. We have to go through a certain de-Nazification process.”
Soros’ likening of George W. Bush and those who worked for him to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis wasn’t just hyperbole, or a slip of the tongue. It was a very deliberate comparison he made on numerous occasions to reporters, in his own writings and at high-profile public events. As liberal activists and the mainstream media establish a new code of rhetorical conduct whereby the mere mention of George Soros’ name by someone on the right is now the moral equivalent of distributing copies of Der Stürmer, it’s useful to remember how often Soros himself—asserting his status as a survivor of the Holocaust—called democratically elected American politicians Nazis. If Soros cannot look at American Republicans without seeing the genocidal maniacs who threatened his life as a child, so cannot his defenders look at Soros without visualizing that vulnerable, 14-year-old boy, forever hiding from the Gestapo.
Soros’ abhorrence for the Bush administration’s foreign-policy unilateralism led him to radically reassess the role of American power in the world. For most of his adult life, Soros could best be described as a Cold War liberal, a foreign-policy hawk with a social conscience who admired both Ronald Reagan and FDR. In 1997, witnessing the utter fecklessness of the Europeans and United Nations as Slobodan Milosevic lay waste to Bosnia, Soros frustratingly concluded that, “The UN has been thoroughly discredited as a peacekeeping institution. Bosnia is doing to the UN what Abyssinia did to the League of Nations in 1936.” Ultimately it was the United States which—at the urging of a bipartisan band of liberal hawks and Republican neoconservatives, whose conception of American power generally cohered with that of Soros—corralled an international coalition to stop the slaughter. Yet just seven years later, Soros would tell The New Yorker that “the most important thing I could do to foster global open societies was to get Bush out of the White House.”
As his obsession deepened, political change in America became more important to Soros than continuing to support democratic transitions in post-authoritarian states or containing the military and geopolitical ambitions of predatory dictatorships like Russia and China. “The main obstacle to a stable and just world order,” this erstwhile champion of American global power and the ideals of an open society wrote in 2007, “is the United States.” As for Islamic extremism, Soros saw a moral equivalence between the actions of groups like al-Qaeda and the democratic societies defending themselves against their depredations. “We abhor terrorists, because they kill innocent people for political goals,” he told Newsweek in 2006. “But by waging war on terror we are doing the same thing.”
Anti-Bush venom blinded Soros to the geopolitical consequences of American retrenchment, particularly in the regions he held most dear: Central and Eastern Europe and the broader post-Soviet space. For all his many faults, Bush was a champion of what at the time was affectionately called “New Europe,” strongly supporting European Union and NATO membership for the countries recently liberated from Moscow’s orbit. President Barack Obama, whom Soros worked so hard to elect and re-elect, did not consider this region a priority, relegating its justified security concerns below the pursuit of a hopeless “reset” with Vladimir Putin.
In the summer of 2009, a distinguished assortment of Central and Eastern Europeans leaders including Havel, former Polish President Lech Walesa, and a host of others whose lives and careers had been positively influenced by Soros, published an open letter to the Obama administration expressing concern that “Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy”; “many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all”; “NATO today seems weaker than when we joined”; and “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.” Their prescient warnings went unheeded. Two months later, Obama announced he was scrapping plans to install missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland—on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of the latter, no less.
Ultimately, Soros’ utopian conceptions of global governance and a world order run by multilateral institutions without the abiding military primacy of the United States to sustain it seem no more realistic than his father’s faith in the prospects of Esperanto. And by identifying himself so closely with one side of the American political spectrum, Soros may have further hampered his ability to effect positive change abroad. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Open Society’s on-the-ground work across the former Soviet space naturally led Soros and his network to forge alliances with Republican national security hawks alert to the threat Putin posed to Europe’s new democracies. Randy Scheunemann was one such figure. A longtime staffer of the late Sen. John McCain, one of the few GOP elected officials Soros openly admired and whose foundation OSF financially supports, Scheunemann was an adviser to the flamboyant former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose ascendance to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution owed much to the work of groups funded by Soros.
After McCain’s failed 2008 presidential campaign, Scheunemann signed on as a lobbyist for the Open Society Policy Center (OSF’s legislative arm), promoting sanctions legislation against the Burmese military junta. He had a ready response for fellow conservatives appalled at his collaboration with a major Democratic donor. “The line that I gave was I’ll take his money to undermine the military dictatorship in Burma all day long,” Scheunemann told me. “It doesn’t mean we buy into his domestic agenda.”
Scheunemann nonetheless believes that Soros’ relentlessly partisan activity in the United States harms his ability to promote nonpartisan, basic liberal values abroad because the former creates suspicion of his motives regarding the latter among conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. “If you play in both worlds”—American domestic politics and overseas democracy promotion—“you can’t somehow claim an easy separation” between the two, Scheunemann says.
“It makes it a great deal more complicated for us to argue for the kind of civic engagement that the Soros network supports in D.C. among our friends when we know he’s dumping billions of dollars to bring down Republican candidates in the United States,” a conservative American political operative, who has spent decades working in Central and Eastern Europe alongside Soros grantees, told me. “That’s crystal clear.”
In 2017, a group of Republican senators wrote to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to investigate how the United States Agency for International Development, which has disbursed grants to OSF, has worked to “impress left-leaning policies on sovereign nations, regardless of their desire for self-determination.” Irrespective of the validity of these claims, Soros leaves himself open to such accusations by engaging as such a prominent partisan actor in the United States.
“How on earth can I go to a Republican member of Congress or senator and say ‘You need to back off what [OSF is] doing in Central and Eastern Europe’ and they say ‘He’s diametrically opposed to everything we’re doing here?’” the political operative asked me. “They all look at it and see it’s all part of the same objective.”
The political ambiguity of the Soros global agenda was encapsulated in an encounter several years ago during the Munich Security Conference. At the stately Bayerischer Hof hotel, McCain, former Sen. Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham (dubbed the Three Amigos for their hawkish foreign-policy views and frequent jaunts to world capitals) bumped into Soros in a crowded hallway. According to someone who witnessed the exchange, Graham, eyeing Soros warily, remarked, “You’ve done some good things.” All of the men laughed.
In September 2016, two months before the presidential election, a series of OSF memos appeared on a website called DCLeaks, later identified by American intelligence services as a Russian intelligence front. One, titled “Extreme Polarization and Breakdown in Civic Discourse,” decried the “decline of fact-based discourse and rise in manipulative practices” and laid out the ways in which OSF hoped to address it.
Polarization, tribalization, partisanship, and a general breakdown in civic discourse are all serious problems in America right now, but they are hardly the exclusive preserve of the American right. And to the extent that these baleful phenomena manifest themselves on the American left, George Soros must answer for some of the damage. Soros was an early backer of MoveOn, the aggressively partisan, left-wing organization which once published a full-page advertisement in The New York Times slandering Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.” Last year, MoveOn published a guide titled “How to Bird-Dog,” providing its followers with tips for harassing elected officials in public. Soros is also a major funder of Media Matters, the watchdog group founded by right-wing hit man turned left-wing hit man David Brock, whose stock-in-trade is the organized boycott of conservative media figures.
Such pressure tactics, aided greatly by the evolution of social media into the primary forum for American public discourse, are a staple of Soros-funded groups. The Center for Popular Democracy, whose executive director accosted Jeff Flake in a Senate elevator, last year organized a “Corporate Backers of Hate” campaign targeting companies it claims “stand to profit from Trump’s hateful agenda.” The group set up a website that allows supporters to flood the inboxes of CEOs of companies they decide are culpable. Such “mass lobbying of individuals in the private sector” is “unprecedented” according to Time.
Soros, again through Open Society, is also a donor to the Center for Constitutional Rights, the nonprofit litigation group founded by radical lawyers Arthur Kinoy (a defense counsel for the Rosenbergs) and William Kunstler, who never met a terrorist (domestic or foreign) he wasn’t eager to defend. Its former longtime director, Michael Ratner, was an admirer of Che Guevara and the communist Cuban dictatorship. The center loudly came to the defense of Lynne Stewart, the lawyer who represented “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman (convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorist attacks on New York landmarks in 1995), and was herself convicted as a terrorist conspirator. When Stewart, who had been disbarred, died, the center “salute[d]” her as “the very definition of a people’s lawyer.”
Open Society also funds the Southern Poverty Law Center, the discredited “anti-hate” organization which recently paid a $3.375 million settlement to the British Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz after slandering him as an “anti-Muslim extremist”—Nawaz being a prime example of a believer in an open society that the George Soros of 30 years ago pledged to support, as a matter of philosophical principle. (SPLC later confirmed that OSF funded the report that put Nawaz on a blacklist.)
Despite being one of the biggest political funders in American politics, with a clearly defined and highly partisan agenda, George Soros and many of those who work for him seem to believe that their own preferences are beyond reproach, and often seem to behave as though criticism of Soros and his funding choices is a moral failure, if not a criminal act. When the New York Times published an exposé last week detailing the public relations effort Facebook has undertaken since the 2016 presidential election, it revealed that the tech giant had obtained the services of a Republican lobbying firm called Definers, part of whose work involved distributing information to reporters concerning Soros’ funding of an array of organizations calling for Facebook to be regulated like a monopoly.
In a terse open letter to Sandberg, Open Society President Patrick Gaspard, a former political director in the Obama White House, said that he found it “astonishing” Facebook had “hired a Republican opposition research firm to stir up animus toward George Soros,” associating it with the “concerted right-wing effort the world over to demonize Mr. Soros and his foundations … an effort which has contributed to death threats and the delivery of a pipe bomb to Mr. Soros’s home.” He equated the distribution of factual information about Soros’ philanthropy to the “hate and misinformation on Facebook’s platform,” deeming it “beyond the pale” and “an offense to the core values Open Society seeks to advance.” (In a separate statement, Open Society accused Facebook of “engaging in practices inspired by the enemies of democracy across the globe.”) Following a phone call with Sandberg, Gaspard gave Facebook a three-month deadline to conduct a “thorough and independent inquiry on Facebook’s lobbying and PR work.”
By identifying himself so closely with one side of the American political spectrum, Soros may have further hampered his ability to effect positive change abroad.
Who is Patrick Gaspard to be issuing such ultimatums? With this intervention against Facebook, he has validated one of the most frequent critiques one hears about the Soros network abroad, which is that it behaves like a government unto itself, with its own ministries of foreign affairs and information. Just as he can label Republicans Nazis while simultaneously calling for a return to bipartisanship, or his foundation can produce a report condemning “extreme polarization and breakdown in civic discourse” while disbursing vast amounts of money to organizations heightening that very polarization and breakdown, so now do Soros and Open Society think that they can position themselves as virulent critics of a major tech company and avoid being criticized in response. It hardly seems beyond the realm of legitimate “civic discourse” for a company to hire a Republican firm to lobby a Republican Congress and distribute opposition research concerning the incredibly rich man who has openly called for the destruction of your company. Attacking Facebook has become something of a personal cause for Soros; speaking at Davos earlier this year, adopting the oracular pose beloved by men of his wealth and station, he predicted that Facebook’s “days are numbered.”
Having seen Definers’ Soros research, I can tell you exactly what was in it: links to articles from mainstream media outlets about “Freedom From Facebook,” a coalition of progressive activist groups, and the funding some of them have received from OSF. Right down to the use of bold fonts to highlight important information and the placement of citations in parentheses, it’s the sort of milquetoast document rival candidates and lobbying campaigns routinely publish about each other, and utterly unremarkable to anyone working in Washington politics or journalism.
There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy to Soros using charges of anti-Semitism, especially given his own use of the same tropes he decries as anti-Semitic against people who object to him. At Davos, Soros referred to Facebook as a “menace” in the process of creating a “web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.” During a congressional hearing last summer at which Facebook executives testified, protesters hired by Freedom From Facebook held up posters depicting company leaders Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg as a two-headed octopus, the very sort of anti-Semitic caricature in which Soros himself often features. Soros and the myriad activists and organizations he funds play the American political game as dirty as everyone else, and then protest that there’s gambling taking place in the casino.
Another realm in which Open Society has been active is backing the increasingly ascendant identity politics strain of the American left. Take one of the members of its newly inaugurated Soros Equality Fellowship, which provides $100,000 grants to “emerging mid-career professionals who will become long-term innovative leaders impacting the racial justice field.” Khaled Beydoun is an affiliate of the University of California at Berkeley Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project and a self-described “critical race theorist.” He has called the bestselling author and atheist Sam Harris “an Islamophobe and not a scholar,” named the late Princeton professor Bernard Lewis “the intellectual father of modern Islamophobia” and branded comedian Bill Maher “the most vivid and venomous liberal Islamophobe.” (The aforementioned Nawaz, meanwhile, is a “native informant.”) Upset that the blockbuster film Black Panther alluded to the Islamist terror group Boko Haram in one of its plotlines, Beydoun condemned the movie for “forc[ing] people to think about Islam in criminal or villainous terms throughout the rest of the film.” Beydoun is lauded by Open Society as one of its “racial justice superheroes of tomorrow.”
While Soros has been extremely generous in funding a plethora of organizations and individuals committed to promoting the interests of practically every conceivable identity group, there is one in whose welfare he is utterly disinterested: his own. It is ironic that the left’s new poster child for the evils of right-wing anti-Semitism has what can best be described as an ambivalent relationship to Judaism and the global Jewish community. Soros’ own view of this ambivalence is that it is a mark of universalist superiority over his hidebound, retrograde co-religionists. “I don’t think that you can ever overcome anti-Semitism if you behave as a tribe,” he told The New Yorker in 1995, tacitly blaming other, unassimilated Jews for anti-Jewish bigotry. “The only way you can overcome it is if you give up the tribalness.” Soros has given scant money to Jewish causes; The New Republic in 1994 described an “aversion to financing Jewish organizations” and a “cynical” “view” of organized Jewry, an aversion and a view which seem not to have dissipated over the ensuing decades. As for the Jewish state, Soros believes pro-Israel advocates provoke anti-Semitism. “Attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby’s success in suppressing divergent views,” he has written. Speaking conspicuously in the third person plural, he told Connie Bruck, “I don’t deny the Jews their right to a national existence—but I don’t want to be part of it.”
Fair enough. Yet it’s notable how, among the well over 100 grantees of OSF’s $3 million Communities Against Hate initiative (launched in the aftermath of Trump’s election), there are a preponderance of groups dedicated to defending transgender people and Muslims, and hardly any committed to defending Jews. Soros contributes next to nothing to the fight against anti-Semitism, one he and his defenders claim to care so much about, and in spite of the fact that, according to FBI hate crime statistics, over half of the victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in the United States are Jewish while less than a quarter are Muslim. In New York City, where Soros resides, “there have been four times as many crimes motivated by bias against Jews—142 in all—as there have against blacks,” writes Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times. And “hate crimes against Jews have outnumbered hate crimes targeted at transgender people by a factor of 20.”
Soros’ son Alexander has expressed a similar contempt for what he portrays as the parochial world of American Jewry, favorably contrasting the deracinated, cosmopolitan philanthropy of his father to the Zionist particularism of other wealthy Jews, as if the two were mutually exclusive. “The reason you fight for an open society is because that’s the only society that you can live in, as a Jew—unless you become a nationalist and only fight for your own rights in your own state,” he dismissively told the Times Magazine last summer. In 2015, the younger Soros started a Jewish political action committee, Bend the Arc. One of the first candidates it endorsed was Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, whose long relationship with Louis Farrakhan has been amply documented.
One facet of the new identity politics about which Soros is decidedly not woke is gender relations, somewhat contradictory in light of his support for organizations at the forefront of the anti-Kavanaugh protests, as well as his funding a plethora of groups affiliated with the anti-Trump Women’s March. When, earlier this year, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called upon her colleague Al Franken to resign over accusations from women who had accused him of inappropriate touching, Soros suggested her motive was to stick the knife in a potential rival for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination “in order to improve her chances.” MSNBC host Chris Hayes spoke for many on the left when he tweeted, “I’m sorry but this is sexist garbage and it should be lit on fire. Eff. That.” Soros has been reported to have his own issues with women. In 2011, his 28-year-old girlfriend accused him of choking and throwing a lamp at her after she responded negatively to his announcement that he would give a $1.9 million condo he had promised her to his traveling nurse (and future wife) instead.
It can certainly be argued that if Soros were truly committed to the “open society” ideals of Karl Popper, he would be investing heavily in groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which fights for the (increasingly endangered) free speech rights of college students and professors, irrespective of their political views. He would also be giving large grants to groups like Heterodox Academy, founded by celebrated New York University sociologist Jonathan Haidt, which seeks to promote viewpoint diversity in higher education.
Instead, Soros has chosen to nurture the future generation of intersectional left-wing activism.
According to a 2015 report in The Washington Times, Open Society “gave at least $33 million in one year to support already established groups that emboldened the grassroots, on-the-ground activists in Ferguson,” Missouri, whose 2014 protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager led to the creation of Black Lives Matter. That movement supports a genuinely important cause—criminal justice reform—but has in places also espoused virulently anti-police rhetoric, accused Israel of being an “apartheid state” that perpetrates “genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” and possibly contributed to a nationwide rise in violent crime by discouraging policing.
In 2016, following a year of racialized controversies on the campus of Yale University, an African-American dishwasher at Yale’s Calhoun College dining hall climbed atop a table and, using a broomstick, smashed a stained-glass window depicting two slaves carrying bales of cotton. When the university fired him, a coalition of “community” organizations rushed to his defense, casting a plain act of vandalism as one of political protest and racial justice. “Yale has to decide which is more valuable: a stained-glass window, or the dignity and humanity of the black people who live and work at Yale,” said Megan Fountain, a Yale alum and volunteer with Unidad Latina en Accion, part of an umbrella group called the Immigration Strategic Funders Collaborative for Connecticut that received a $100,000 Open Society grant the year prior. Another group that organized the rallies, the Center for Community Change, along with its super PAC, Immigrant Voters Win, have received millions of dollars either through Open Society or Soros personally.
Soros is a major donor to the American Civil Liberties Union, a once-great and vital organization that, like much else in the era of Donald Trump, appears to be relinquishing any pretense of political neutrality. The ACLU is now involving itself in electoral politics and has joined the so-called resistance against President Trump. Breaking its own policy of neither endorsing nor opposing political candidates and judicial appointees, the group came out against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In the midterm election, it spent more than $20 million on individual races and ballot initiatives, including radio attack ads against an incumbent Democratic sheriff in North Carolina that referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees as “Trump’s deportation force.” According to Executive Director Anthony Romero, the ACLU is explicitly adopting the model of the National Rifle Association by becoming an all but official appendage of a political party. “I regard this as a departure which has the capacity to destroy the organization as it has always existed,” Romero’s predecessor, Ira Glasser, told The New Yorker. “The problem you get into in politics is that all power is an antagonist of liberty.”
It’s possible that the apparent contradiction between the European Soros and the American Soros is in fact representative of the inner man himself. It was “rare,” Connie Bruck wrote in 1995, “to find someone in whom contradictory impulses are so extreme and so strong that the principle of cognitive dissonance seems not to apply—and who seems as a consequence to be pushed and pulled in restless, frenetic motion between these polar zones.” Such impulses are in evidence when Soros proclaims that China has “a better functioning government than the United States,” a strange affirmation from a man who has spent tens of billions of dollars promoting open society principles. The humility and recognition of one’s own ignorance which forms the core of Soros’ economic theory of reflexivity is absent in his dogmatic approach to politics; his own righteous certainty contrasts sharply with OSF’s original mission. Or perhaps Soros is trying to insulate himself from the brickbats of the materialist left by investing heavily in the identitarian one? It would not be the first time that a plutocrat tried to buy himself protection from the masses.
By investing in a wide variety of pet political projects, Soros—along with other liberal billionaires like Tom Steyer—is contributing to the broader decline of the Democratic Party as an umbrella coalition. “No matter how bottom-up the OSF is, Soros’ money has by definition empowered some parts of civil society over others, propping up certain organizations, public figures, and issues,” writes Benajmin Soskis, the philanthropy analyst. That seems to me like a polite way of saying that Soros exerts significant influence over American politics, culture, and society writ large. Right wingers often crudely, and dangerously, exaggerate this influence. But it is nonetheless apparent that each vertical of his philanthropy reinforces the others, and services the others. An ecology is born, which Soros shapes. This is hardly unusual; every philanthropist who is interested in making a big impact in some area uses a version of this strategy.
In America, Soros’ operations work on an us-versus-them principle. This is a totally legitimate point of view to take for partisan political operatives in a two-party political system. In fact, it is the founding rule for partisan political operatives of all stripes. But according to this code, free speech doesn’t matter. The principles of an open society don’t matter. Because, according to this Manichean view, all of that is subordinate to, and purely instrumental as, a means for one team to gain power over another. A group like Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is on the other side, because anyone who is against any member of the Soros coalition—i.e., the intersectional grievance pyramid—is by definition batting for the other team. There is no overriding principle that matters. And then, when the Soros team gains power, there will be “Justice.”
While the open society is indeed under attack in Europe and America, where Soros has undoubtedly succeeded is in burnishing his public persona. “Some people in the financial world who have known Soros for many years observe his continuing political climb with misgivings” Bruck wrote ominously in 1995, a thread of analysis that would be utterly abandoned by the press once Soros planted his flag firmly on the side of the Democratic Party. (Bruck also cast a critical eye on OSF’s activities in places like Ukraine, Macedonia, and Albania, questioning the extent to which Soros’ political interventions in young, Eastern European democracies coincided with his financial interests.) “Messianic zeal often works as concealment for what one really craves—and it strikes me that the more George covets control the more hysterical he becomes about open society,” one longtime associate told Bruck. “He is not a knowing charlatan.”
Bruck’s ultimate assessment would be impossible to find in a mainstream journalistic outlet today:
That Soros’ intentions are good and his views simpatico, however, should not obscure the issue; just as we uphold the rights of those whose values we condemn, so, of course, should we scrutinize the exercise of power by one whose values we share. Scrutiny of Soros, however, is wanting. In his political activities, he does not really come under the direct purview of anyone; as usual, he is moving unconstrainedly in a gray area where rules are uncertain and shaded boundaries easily bypassed. His philanthropy, moreover, serves as a kind of amulet to ward off criticism; many who know him, particularly those in government, seem so mesmerized by the scope of his giving that they tend to put in abeyance the kinds of judgments that they might otherwise make.
In the more than two decades since these words were written, the credulity Bruck noticed among grateful, cash-strapped bureaucrats now characterizes most journalists, who report upon Soros as if the only people who could ever possibly criticize his work are fascists and anti-Semites and deranged conspiracy theorists. “In the world that Soros has created for himself, there is no one to call him to account,” Bruck wrote.
It used to be the American media that called wealthy and powerful people, irrespective of their political ideology, to account. But since Soros appointed himself the foremost individual patron of the institutional left—his “amulet to ward off criticism”—the press abandoned its role. People who typically adhere to Balzac’s dictum about a great crime lying behind every great fortune drop their skepticism when the subject is Soros. The universally obsequious, dutiful media coverage of Soros is also a function of the broader tribalization of society, a tribalization that Soros and others on the left (not least the mainstream media itself) frequently condemn yet are complicit in creating. Because Soros is one of the most visible anti-Trump figures in the United States, the media has become pro-Soros. Through a combination of munificent strategic philanthropy and shrewd PR, Soros and his employees have pulled off an amazing feat: They have persuaded a large swath of the American left to defend the honor of a rapacious capitalist, and to do so on the grounds that he is the pitiable victim of anti-Semitism (a phobia that neither he nor they otherwise tend to care very much about).
In a 2007 essay, Soros noted seven techniques employed by those who attack him: “Conflating fact and opinion,” “Guilt by association,” “Conspiracy theory,” “Mixing sources,” “Transference” (“the writer accuses his opponent of having the same motives or using the same techniques that he has or uses himself”), “False labeling” (“The writer divides the world between us and them, good and bad, left and right, and then condemns people by labeling them”), and “false patriotism” (“the writer accuses the opponent of being unpatriotic and anti-American.”) As much as these tactics are utilized against Soros by his most hysterical right-wing detractors, so too are they deployed by him and the legions of organizations and individuals he funds. Collectively, they embody the #resistance mindset that is blurring the lines between loyal opposition and mobocracy, an either/or, “with us or against us” mentality remarkably similar to the supposedly Manichean worldview of George W. Bush he claimed to despise.
“I’m eager to get out of this partisan position that I’m pigeonholed into,” Soros told Jane Mayer in 2004. “I heartily dislike it. I’ve always been against dividing the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ So this ‘us’-versus-‘them’ campaign is very uncomfortable for me.” Connie Bruck had earlier written of Soros’ “tendency to beatify one side and demonize the other” in all manner of global hot spots and political disputes. Less than a decade later, his utterly hypocritical condemnation of “ ‘us’-versus-‘them’ ” rhetoric would pass by unremarked upon by the same magazine. If it seems incongruous that Soros could issue such bipartisan bromides while simultaneously calling Republicans Nazis, consider that he is also a man who cringes at the “tribal loyalties” of “the Jews” but generously underwrites the tribalization of each and every other group.
Once upon a time, George Soros devoted himself to spreading Popper’s ideas of the open society in which freedom of inquiry, free speech, critical thinking, and the personal liberty to hold different views were paramount values. In Europe, those values are under attack from right-wing nationalists and autocrats who admire Vladimir Putin. In America, they are under attack by a president who admires Putin—and by a host of progressive organizations funded by George Soros. It is deeply painful to contemplate the reality that a man who miraculously avoided two great historical tragedies in his youth has decided to spend his old age fueling the fires that threaten to consume the values he spent decades fighting for, and the country that gave him shelter.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.