Just when it seemed that President Donald Trump had ensured that American politics couldn’t get any nastier or more divisive, along came Brett Kavanaugh. The debate about the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice didn’t just illustrate how American politics has become a species of warfare with no middle ground left between the parties and ideological factions.
The intersection of important concerns about sexual violence with the implacable rigidity of contemporary partisanship and the no-holds-barred style of discourse - of which Trump is both a symptom and an ever-present force for making things worse - has damaged every individual and institution involved in the controversy.
Both sides have contributed to this dismal situation, but both are so committed to their ideological and political ends that neither is willing to acknowledge their roles in this moral catastrophe, or the costs of a politics of personal destruction, let alone to give their opponents credit for having decent motives.
That’s why any hint of interjecting the question of anti-Semitism into this already toxic mix should be viewed with alarm. Yet that is what happened when President Donald Trump and Republicans like Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley said they blamed billionaire George Soros for funding some of the groups and individuals who flooded Capitol Hill, to not only urge Senators to reject Kavanaugh but to harass those who disagreed.
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The mention of Soros had some on the left not merely crying foul about blaming a left-wing sugar daddy for the surge of activism. They also claimed that any mention of Soros is a dog whistle for anti-Semites.
The comments by Trump and Grassley were linked to the attacks on Soros by the Hungarian government, whose authoritarian leader Viktor Orban has employed traditional anti-Semitic slurs while seeking to use the billionaire investor as a scapegoat in a campaign against his domestic foes.
Put in that context, criticism of Soros or even a mention of him is interpreted as a signal that dark forces are seeking to use the toolbox of Jew hatred.
If that wasn’t enough to fuel this fire, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s retweeting of a comment in which Soros was spoken of as "the anti-Christ" and others on the right calling for Trump to freeze or seize his assets "as an enemy of the United States," for "seditious conspiracy against the United States."
But while Trump’s critics are quick to connect the dots between the fight over Kavanaugh, and Orban’s depiction of Soros as a rich Jew threatening Hungary’s peace and prosperity, they need to understand that criticism of him means something very different in the context of American politics.
While some have embraced Orban because of his hostility to Muslims or his embrace of Israel, autocrats like those in Hungary have always hated Soros because his Open Society Foundation has promoted democracy and free speech. Soros’s philanthropic efforts in Eastern Europe and the Third World have been on behalf of projects that shouldn’t be controversial in a Western context.
But right-wingers tend to see Soros solely through the prism of his backing for left-of-center causes in both the U.S. and Israel.
In the United States, Soros isn’t the boogeyman of Hungarian politics or a supporter of the Palestinians. Here, he’s just one more billionaire funding Democrats like Tom Steyer, who has been the very public leader of the movement to impeach Trump, or Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who is a fervent supporter of gun control and has pledged $80 million to help the Democrats win the 2018 midterm elections.
While some extremists - on both the right and the left - may see only Jews when names like Steyer, Bloomberg or Soros - are raised, a largely philo-Semitic and overwhelmingly pro-Israel American right just sees rich liberals. If Republicans bash Soros, it isn’t because he’s Jewish. It’s because he has been spending freely to defeat them for the last two decades.
While their criticism of Soros has sometimes been inappropriate (such as those who recycled charges about his behavior during the Holocaust when he was a boy in Hungary), their attacks on him are no different from the way Democrats have gone all out to demonize the billionaire Koch Brothers - non-Jewish libertarians who spent freely on behalf of Republicans.
Just as some extremists associate Soros with a nefarious global Jewish conspiracy, the left-wing screeds against the Kochs that claim they are carrying out an equally awful plot of the wealthy to defraud American democracy plays upon the same themes - minus the Jewish angle.
Trump and Grassley might be wrong about Soros’ funding of all the anti-Kavanaugh protesters. But they’re not wrong that he is someone who seeks to use his considerable resources to defeat them.
It may be hypocritical for American conservatives - who view spending on political causes as constitutionally protected free speech - to think there’s something sinister about Soros’ efforts. But their animus for him is no more illegitimate than the way the left attacks GOP donors.
Nor is such criticism - in an American context - anti-Semitic. Talk of global conspiracies may resonate in Hungary, but Soros-bashing means something different in the U.S.
As even the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen admitted in a column in which he claimed attacks on Soros are troubling (the president invokes racist tropes out of ignorance, an "anti-Semitism without Jews"), Trump is no anti-Semite. Nor are Grassley or Giuliani.
As is the case with the left’s attacks on conservative donors, painting Soros as a puppeteer rather than just another political big giver is a way to delegitimize the causes and candidates he supports rather than to address the issues he cares about. But tarring his critics with anti-Semitism is also neither accurate nor fair.
In other times and places, criticism of wealthy Jewish individuals was part of an anti-Semitic narrative. But in 21st century America, Soros is just as much fair game for criticism as anyone else who seeks to use their money to get their way in politics.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin