Why George Soros Became the Favorite Bogeyman of the Global Right

Stop Soros Ad
The 4/6 tram stop at Blaha Lujza tér in Budapest with a "Stop Soros" ad taken by Elekes Andor (2 February 2018)

George Soros—billionaire investor and philanthropist—has recently been the target of much ire both the United States, where he is a naturalized citizen, and in his birth-country of Hungary. National leaders, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and U.S. President Donald Trump have both promoted anti-Semitic treatment of Soros by their supporters.

Soros was born in 1930 in Hungary, where his Jewish family narrowly escaped Nazi persecution by using fake papers to hide in plain sight as Christians. After World War II came to an end, Soros fled Hungary as a new threat arose: Hungary’s domination by the Soviet Union and the imposition of Soviet-style communism on the Hungarian nation. 

Soros went on to become one of the most successful investors and hedge fund managers of the 20th century. Over the course of his life, Soros has donated over $32 billion to the Open Society Foundations (OSF), which he founded to advance the causes of civil society and democracy around the world. In Hungary, Soros founded the Central European University (CEU) and has supported numerous organizations to advance the rights of Roma, LGBTQ people, refugees and other marginalized peoples. (Full disclosure: Soros has also supported the People for the American Way Foundation.) Given his Jewish heritage, far-right forces both here and in Europe—which often traffic in anti-Semitic tropes and symbols—have used both innuendo and naked anti-Semitism to try to damage Soros’ work on behalf of democracy and marginalized minority groups.

Earlier this month, it was reported that cartoonist Ben Garrison, who drew a comic portraying Soros acting as a sinister puppeteer alongside members of the Rothschild family, was invited to the White House’s July 2019 social media summit. The trope of the “puppeteer” echoes well-known anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that allege a secret Jewish cabal is pulling strings to control international politics.  Weeks of outrage leading up to the summit ultimately resulted in the cartoonist  being disinvited from the summit.

In recent years, the far-right in both the U.S. and abroad has turned Soros into what some have described as a liberal bogeyman. In both the U.S. and Hungary, Jews are often portrayed as both insider and outsider. Soros is simultaneously portrayed by the far-right as a foreign investor, meddling somewhere where he doesn’t belong, and the local Jew, who is depicted as placing his loyalty to his people before his country.

One place where the intersection between these two perceived identities becomes more tangible is the allusion often made to Soros as a “billionaire globalist” or the leader of a “globalist movement.” The term “globalist” is used by anti-Semites as shorthand for the idea of a global Jewish conspiracy for power and control. This idea of a global conspiracy has its roots in the Middle Ages, where paranoia about wealthy Jews began to become more prevalent, and the continued thread of this harmful trope can be traced to the 20th century myth of Judeo-Bolshevism.

Another aspect of these conspiracies is the suggestion that Jews are conspiring to weaken the state where they reside in order to heighten their own influence. This, specifically, is a common assertion when it comes to Soros’s treatment in the U.S. and Hungary. Soros has been known to lobby for the humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially after Hungary’s controversial treatment of asylum seekers in 2014. This has lead the Right to cast Soros as radically pro-immigration, with some asserting that he is trying to destabilize Europe and the U.S. by allowing dangerous migrants to enter.

In 2018, Donald Trump and others accused Soros of being the “mastermind” behind the migrant “caravan” that trekked from Central America to the U.S. Southern border in 2018. This narrative of Soros as a global mastermind and promoter of non-white immigration “replacing” white Europeans or Americans was cited by the suspected shooter in the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The gunman had posted shortly before the massacre about his fears of “white genocide” by these migrant “invaders.”

During the migrant caravan controversy in the U.S., many right-wing commentators suggested that the migrants were being paid by Soros to come to the U.S., echoing similar accusations by right-wing politicians and media in both the U.S. and Hungary that Soros pays protesters to create chaos. By portraying protesters as “Soros agents,” right-wing leaders hope to undermine the legitimacy of protests.

The term “Soros agent” has been used to describe a plethora of people, including Hungary’s first black parliament member, Olivio Kocsis-Cake; the former chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz; and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. In 2018, the government of Hungary published a list of over 200 “Soros mercenaries,” which included human rights advocates, journalists, teachers and professors. By portraying these people as members of a foreign conspiracy to control local politics, right-wing political leaders seek not only to dismiss their critics but also to intimidate those who are working for change.

These anti-Semitic critiques of Soros are not limited to Hungary and the U.S.; Austria’s vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-Right FPÖ party described the Soros-funded Central European University as a “Wanderuniversität” or “Wandering University.” The “wandering Jew” is an image that has its origins in the medieval era and was co-opted by the Nazis in the mid-20th century to promote violence and hatred against the Jewish people.

The Hungarian government adopted a so-called “Stop Soros” Law in June 2018, which made it illegal for civil society organizations to “facilitate illegal immigration,”  which includes such actions as helping migrants apply for asylum or providing assistance to undocumented foreigners.

After the enactment of the Stop Soros legislation, the OSF started to consider moving its headquarters out of Budapest. Before the foundations officially left Budapest in the spring of 2018, Orbán launched another poster campaign, which many have called anti-Semitic. The posters show an image of Soros, with the words “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!” emblazoned on billboards, bus stops and subway stations. The ad text is about stopping illegal immigration.

The image of “the laughing Jew” goes back to a speech given by Adolf Hitler in 1939, where he depicts the Jews of Germany laughing at his assertion that he would take over the nation and settle the “Jewish problem”; Hitler continues by saying: “If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”

By making a reference to this speech and stereotype perpetuated by Hitler, Orbán played on the anti-Semitic fears and histories of the Hungarian people. Hungarians were aligned with the Nazis before the country was occupied.  Recently, this Nazi-aligned past has come back to haunt the Orbán-regime after the addition of a controversial Holocaust memorial to Budapest’s Freedom Square seemed to erase the Hungarian collaboration with the Third Reich during World War II. Although the anti-Soros signs were up only for a short time, many of these signs were vandalized with graffiti that included phrases such as “dirty Jew” or crudely drawn swastikas.

In the spring of 2019, a new ad campaign supported by Orbán’s Fidesz party was denounced by the European Commission. The ad featured images of Soros and EC President Jean-Claude Juncker, with the words “You, too, have a right to know what Brussels is preparing.” The ads were denounced as promoting false narratives and using Soros to inflame anti-Semitic feelings and stoke anti-immigration fears in Hungary.

Both Trump and Orbán, along with many of their right-wing supporters, are playing a dangerous game, publicly condemning anti-Semitism while using veiled and not-so-veiled anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes. Both countries have seen rises in anti-Semitic violence. In the U.S., the FBI reported a 37 percent rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2017, and in Europe, 90 percent of Jews feel that anti-Semitism is on the rise in their home countries.

In October of 2018, a series of mail bombs were sent to top leaders, including former President Barack Obama and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who had vocally disagreed with President Trump; another of these bombs was sent to Soros’ New York home. The bombs did not reach their intended targets, and the sender, identified as Cesar Sayoc, plead guilty to the charges in March 2019.