The day after Donald Trump became president of the United States, thousands of people in pink hats marched the streets. They were protesting Trump’s stance on women’s rights, among other issues.
But some looked at the sea of pink and saw something else: the invisible hand of a man they believe is not just funding liberal protest movements but controlling the world’s wealth and pushing a global order.
It’s not true, but the man these conspiracy theorists target is George Soros, the prominent billionaire hedge fund manager.
The 86-year-old has become a Rorschach test. To the left, he’s a rich guy openly supporting causes many liberals believe in. But to some on the far right, he’s more sinister and nefarious, despite a lack of evidence. For two decades, some have seen Soros as a kind of puppet master secretly controlling the global economy and politics.
At times Soros has wielded great power. In the early 1990s, he bet against the British pound, which broke England’s monetary system overnight and earned him more than a billion dollars. Later in the decade, he took similar steps during Asian Financial Crisis. Many saw it as capitalising off of catastrophes and the Malaysian prime minister even accused Soros of purposefully bringing down the value of his country’s currency by more than 15%.
From there, he’s become a singular target of unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories, in part because he has so few peers on the left.
“What makes the Soros thing interesting is that most of the conspiracy theories about rich people tend to be made by people on the left about people on the right,” said Joe Uscinski, a political-science professor at the University of Miami.
Soros, who is worth $US25 billion, has been at the center of conspiracy theories since he first rose to the top echelons of hedge fund managers in the 1990s. But he really attracted attention in 2004, when he gave money to groups that sought to block President George W. Bush’s reelection bid. His entry into politics, coupled with Soros’ choice to repeatedly speak out against the Iraq War, set off a long-lasting string of conspiracy theories alleging that Soros tried to influence politics with nefarious intent.
“George Soros first found himself in the crosshairs of the conservative propaganda machine when he publicly expressed opposition to the march to war in Iraq,” said Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros Fund Management. Since then, Soros has continued to donate large sums of money to organisations that support democratic reform in the US and throughout the world. Some saw that as a sign of scheming secretive plots.
Right-leaning sites like Breitbart and The Washington Times have often claimed that Soros paid protesters at the Women’s March and the March for Science. In reality, Soros has been giving money to progressive groups since long before the Trump’s election. In 2017, some of them decided to participate in protests.
Theories can be far-fetched, like accusations that Soros is in cahoots with the world’s elite to bring down the global currency. Then there are simpler accusations that are rooted in truth: that Soros uses his power and money to influence politics. His open support for migrants and refugees and criminal-justice reform is well known.
Still, people such as Daniel Greenfield believe Soros goes further. Greenfield is a regular writer for far-right outlets. He believes Soros is trying to take over the world to make it more liberal.
“Government should be decided by the people rather than by powerful interests who subvert democracy,” Greenfield told Business Insider. He wrote an article saying that Soros “destroyed the Democratic party.”
“I don’t like his governments and their agendas,” Greenfield said.
The left’s Koch brother
Soros’ choice to put his wealth toward political causes that he believes in is not particularly different from the billions of dollars that right-wing billionaires like Charles and David Koch have been donating to Republican causes for years, said Miami University professor Timothy Melley. The difference is that far more ultra-rich Americans are politically conservative.
“It’s a projection of right-wing billionaire behaviour onto a prominent left-wing billionaire,” said Melley, who wrote “Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America.”
It’s true Soros has not been quiet in his criticism of Republicans like Trump.
Many European countries with right-leaning governments have also seen a strong anti-Soros push in recent years. The president of Soros’ native Hungary has passed laws that would try to close a progressive university the billionaire opened in Budapest and called Soros “an enemy of the euro” after the EU criticised the decision.
“George is the enemy of choice of despots,” said Vachon.
No ‘secret plot’
While many anti-Soros theories accuse him of schemes and secrecy, Soros’ Open Society Foundation is fairly vocal in its commitment to social justice. The foundation’s site states that it has spent more than $US1.6 billion on democratic development in Eastern Europe. As a child, Soros fled persecution from the Nazis and has been instrumental in bringing capitalism to countries within the former Soviet bloc.
The foundation has also spent more than $US1.5 billion on democratic reform — including immigration, criminal justice, and democratic governance — within the US.
“Like any other liberal, George Soros is hoping that Trump will be out of power,” said Melley, adding that Soros’ spending and political power is what turns him into a threat. “It doesn’t exactly constitute a secret plot.”
What Soros actually did is in line with the political activities of prominent conservative donors. Conservative hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, for instance, has given millions of dollars to a pro-Trump Make America Number One super PAC and sponsored public-opinion research suggesting an outsider candidate was likely to win in November 2016.
Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture,” said that many of the claims waged against Soros could have an anti-Semitic slant similar to false claims that the Rothschild family secretly controls all of the world’s wealth. Fenster said wealth is often used to justify “fearing and hating the Jews” and, as a result, is also used to disguise anti-Semitism in some conspiracy theorists.
In the past, Breitbart published tweets calling Soros “an octopus.” The Nazis used octopus imagery to refer to Jews controlling the world in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, Glenn Beck, the former Fox News host and founder of The Blaze, once called Soros “a “puppet master” who holds the strings of the world in his hands.
“Some of what’s going on right now is not really a conspiracy theory in the sense of an organic, populist view that kind of rises up from the masses,” said Melley. “It seems to be a relatively deliberate attempt to … discredit.”
The idea that Soros is secretly behind all the world’s ills remains persistently in the mouths of right-wing commentators — in 2007, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly spent nearly 10 minutes describing Soros as “off-the-charts dangerous” and “an extremist who wants open borders, a one-world foreign policy, legalised drugs, euthanasia, and on and on.”
“If a conspiracy theory can explain big things and offer a villain that people already despise then it’s going to be popular,” said Uscinski, adding that someone who has money and significant political influence will often be seen as a threat for those with opposing views.
Another frequent source of anti-Soros coverage, the conspiracy-minded site Infowars ran a video piece titled “George Soros Is About To Overthrow The US” in 2016.
But as pointed out by Melley, “overthrowing the US” most often boils down to little other than openly criticising right-wing government and supporting progressive, democratic causes. After all, the hedge fund billionaire is not afraid to call Trump a “would-be dictator,” so he’s unlikely to make any new friends on the right.
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