In Monday’s post, “The Soros Meme” (which you can read here), I reviewed aspects of George Soros’ life history that made him a convenient target. But how does a Hungarian/American jewish financier who spends his money fostering democratic values in Europe and the U.S. become the all purpose boogeyman of nationalists, racists, and even (in the U.S.) run-of-the-mill Republicans?
The answer lies with the right wing nationalist prime minister of Soros’ native Hungary, Viktor Orbán, and two American Republican political consultants, Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum. Finkelstein, who died in 2017 at age 72, has been celebrated among Republican/Libertarian political strategists since the 1960s and Richard Nixon. The following lengthy quote is from an article entitled The Unbelievable Story Of The Plot Against George Soros (a great read if you have the time):
It was back then [the 1960s] that Finkelstein started developing a political method that now reads like a how-to guide for modern right-wing populism. Finkelstein’s premise was simple: Every election is decided before it even begins. Most people know who they will vote for, what they support, and what they oppose. It’s very difficult to convince them otherwise, Finkelstein believed. It’s a lot easier to demoralize people than to motivate them. And the best way to win is to demoralize your opponent’s supporters. That’s what Trump did to great effect against Hillary Clinton, and what he meant when, after the election, he thanked black Americans for not voting.
Finkelstein had long been studying the big political trends, and he settled on simple issues that could do the most damage. In the end, he noticed, it usually comes down to the same concerns: drugs, crime, and race. These are the issues that create the most political division, he wrote in a memo to the Nixon White House in 1970.
Finkelstein’s goal was to polarize the electorate as much as possible, to pitch each side against the other. The fuel: fear. “The danger has to be presented as coming from the Left,” a 25-year-old Finkelstein advised Nixon.
Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu (current prime minister of Israel) hired Finkelstein as a political consultant in 1996. Using Finkelstein’s signature smear tactics, Netanyahu came from 20 point deficit to squeak out a win against Shimon Peres, Yitzak Rabin’s successor following Rabin’s assassination. Today Netanyahu is serving in his fourth Israeli premiership. Netanyhu’s views on many issues, including immigration, are parallel to those of Donald Trump. Netanyahu is known for having warm relationships with Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Silvio Berlusconi, and Trump.
In 1998 Finkelstein invited a younger jewish american political consultant, George Birnbaum, to join forces with him. Together they applied Finkelstein’s formula for other hard right candidates in eastern Europe. Netanyahu recommended them to his friend Viktor Orbán of Hungary. There Finkelstein and Brinbaum engineered an “electoral masterpiece” for Orbán’s 2014 re-election campaign. Finkelstein and Brinbaum needed a boogeyman:
Finkelstein had an epiphany. What if the veil of the conspiracy were to be lifted and a shadowy figure appear, controlling everything? The puppet master. Someone who not only controlled the “big capital” but embodied it. A real person. A Hungarian. Strange, yet familiar.
That person was Soros, Finkelstein told Birnbaum.
Birnbaum was mesmerized: Soros was the perfect enemy.
At the beginning, it almost didn’t make sense. Why campaign against a nonpolitician? Although he was born in Hungary, Soros hadn’t lived there in years. He was an old man, known all over the country as a patron of civil society. He had supported the opposition against the Communists before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and financed school meals for kids afterward. In Budapest, he had built one of the best universities in Eastern Europe.
[This extended quote also comes from The Unbelievable Story Of The Plot Against George Soros. I again recommend reading the entire article.]
Soros had spent money defending “…everything the right was against: climate protection, equality, the Clintons. He opposed the second Iraq War in 2003, even comparing George W. Bush to the Nazis, and became a major donor for the Democrats. He was soon a hate figure for the Republicans.” His Open Society Foundations worked in support of liberal democracy in a series of countries in which Finkelstein and Birnbaum were hired by the hard right. The Soros meme grew internationally and took on a life of its own. Soros jewish background fit easily into the old anti-semitic conspiracy theories. In Hungary:
In the fall of 2017 the administration conducted a “national consultation.” Millions of citizens received questionnaires, in which they could choose whether or not they supported the “Soros plan” to allow a million people from Africa and the Middle East to enter Europe per year.
It worked. A huge part of the country turned against Soros. Orbán won in 2014 and 2018, both times with an overwhelming majority.
Soros sadly maligned persona lives on the lips and in the minds of Republicans in Spokane, most of whom have no idea of Soros’ life, A group has swallowed the dishonest propaganda of two jewish american political consultants most of us have never heard of. Finkelstein and Birnbaum touched off a campaign of distortion and lies that would have made Joseph Goebbels smile.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. For a fascinating further look at this subject listen to Chris Hayes’ Why is the Happening Podcast entitled Tracing the roots of anti-Semitism with Deborah Lipstadt.
George Soros name appears on their lips at odd moments, an epithet, a meme, an insider story meant to convey suspicion and evil conspiracy. “Those protestors were paid by George Soros. Soros bussed them in!” McMorris Rodgers tosses out “George Soros” in a debate with Lisa Brown, implying evil. About half the audience applauds, and it flies over the head of the other half.
The local king of wing nut conspiracy theory, Matt Shea (R, Legislative District 4, Spokane Valley and points north) [the bold is mine] asked on his podcast:
…if groups like Latinx advocacy organization UnidosUS (formerly La Raza) were working together with protest groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, [he] claimed that these groups were also cooperating with other groups and were funded by the billionaire George Soros. ‘They are working together, it’s happening. They are very well connected through their networks, and their networks generally lead back to one George Soros, as you know,’ he said.
George Soros has become the all-purpose boogyman for a broad range of nationalists, anti-immigration zealots,and right wing conspiracy theorists, Very few of these people have any idea of this man’s life and passions.
George Soros is wealthy, influential with a complicated life history. He is now 88 years old. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1930 into a non-observant Jewish family. As a teenager he survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary posing as the Christian godson of a collaborationist Hungarian government official (whose wife was jewish and in also hiding from the Nazis). (One of the gross distortions of Soros’ history labels him a “Nazi.” That’s how crazy the stories have become.) After the war Soros and his family made their way to England, where young George Soros attended the London School of Economics. There he earned a Bachelor of Science in philosophy in 1951, and a Master of Science in philosophy in 1954.
At age twenty-four in 1954, he set forth on a career in finance and banking in London, starting as a clerk in a merchant bank. He moved from London to New York in 1956, taking a position as an arbitrage trader. Eventually he accumulated a peak net worth of around 26 billion dollars through decades of hedge fund management. The arcane details can be combed through by visiting the wikipedia article and branching out from there. Some of his financial efforts were internationally controversial, especially his “shorting the pound” (the English pound sterling) in 1992, allowing Soros and his investors to take advantage of currency markets to make several billion pounds at the expense of the Bank of England. The “1992 pound short” made Soros internationally (in)famous, leaving a residual in the popular consciousness that would later be useful in making him into a target.
Soros’ investment fund management and wealth accumulation are also a convenient fit for a conspiracy theory that has been around for centuries. I was introduced to the “Rothschild conspiracy” as a teenager, the concept that a jewish cabal (in the relatively recent version, lead by the Rothschild family), control world governments through their manipulation of international banking. The section entitled “Economic Anti-Semitism” in the wikipedia article on “Antisemitism” is a must read for more background.
So that is Soros background that makes him a convenient target. Why is he a political target for the Christian and Far Right?
Soros, having personally experienced the Nazi occupation of Hungary as a boy, is an outspoken critic of totalitarian governance. He has used his considerable wealth to foster the growth and preservation of democracy. He opposed and opposes the autocratic regimes of the U.S.S.R., China, and modern day Russia. He supported the Solidarity movement in Poland, led by Lech Walesa in 1980 and the Chapter 77 movement pushing for free society in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, In 1984, he founded his first Open Society Institute in Hungary with a budget of $3 million, the first of a number of Open Society Foundations around the world. Among the expenditures of the Open Society Foundation in the last 20 years are “$2.9 billion to defend human rights, especially the rights of women; ethnic, racial, and religious minorities; drug users; sex workers; and LGBTQ communities.” Are you beginning to understand why the religious right is anxious to demonize this man?
As was pointed out in The Business Insider by Veronica Bondarenko, Soros, as a wealthy, politically active liberal, stands out because there are so few uber-wealthy liberals. The right wing, libertarian wealthy are far more numerous and far more secretive, including the Koch brothers, James Mercer, the Bradleys, the Uhleins, the Mercers (James in particular), and the DeVoses, to name only a few. Possessing the wealth, they are inclined to invest their money in foundations and political causes that will defend it.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Note: Soros peak fortune, estimated at 26 billion, pales in comparison to the Koch brothers. Their combined fortune is estimated at 99.6 billion. The Koch’s money is further leveraged politically by an the extensive network of Libertarian/Republican donors they have assembled (as detailed by Jane Mayer in “Dark Money.” For more on “Dark Money” see below in the Reference box.)