Opinion |

COVID-19 to George Floyd to Caravans: Is ‘Soros’ Now the World’s Most Versatile, Dangerous Conspiracy Theory?

George Soros, financier, Jew and donor to liberal causes, is the initial target of conspiracy theories bearing his name. But as both the hard left and right push the Soros slur, the repercussions are far wider and more damaging

Emily Tamkin
Emily Tamkin
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A right-wing meme on Twitter positioning George Soros as the originator of a coronavirus world conspiracy involving Bill Gates, James Comey, Rep Adam Schiff and others
A Pro-Trump right-wing meme on Twitter positioning George Soros as the originator of a coronavirus world conspiracy involving Bill Gates, James Comey, Rep Adam Schiff and othersCredit: Twitter
Emily Tamkin
Emily Tamkin

"Is Soros Behind the War on Hydroxychloroquine?" So queried a headline on the U.S. evangelicals-oriented Breaking Israel News site earlier this week. The piece suggests that George Soros, the Hungarian-born American billionaire philanthropist, is set to benefit both financially from the coronavirus pandemic, and politically — by undermining President Donald Trump.

The U.S. president has been pushing use of hydroxychloroquine as an antidote to, or preventative measure against, the virus and last week announced that he was taking it himself.

"A bit of research into the separate elements shows some disturbing connections, indicating the media war against hydroxychloroquine may be backed by some nefarious forces," the piece opens.

There is, to be clear, no war on hydroxychloroquine, but rather a plethora of warnings of its serious side effects including a higher risk of heart problems and even death. The World Health Organizaton has halted clinical trials for the drug, and France has just banned its use in COVID-19 cases, citing patient safety concerns.

The somewhat obscure Breaking News Israel is hardly alone in fingering Soros as the hidden hand behind COVID-19: the “theory” is all over pro-Trump hard right social media and right-wing news platforms with soft spots for conspiracy theories from Gateway Pundit to Trump’s newest best friend, One America Network.

How should we understand this latest iteration of the storied and ever-versatile anti-Soros smear campaign, which invariably paint him as ringleader of a global conspiratorial plot?

Tweet on "Soros & the Coronavirus pandemic...The Soros Agenda [intends] to induce chaos to change the capitalistic democratic systems that prevailed since the end of WWII"Credit: Twitter

Most clearly, the Soros as hydroxychloroquine antagonist conspiracy theory has something in common with many a Soros conspiracy theory.

While Soros himself, as a financier, Jew and donor to liberal causes, is the initial target, "Soros" has also become a metonym for any opposition to the worldview not just of full-time conspiracy theorists, but also of more mainstream and powerful politicians and commentators. Soros conspiracies are thus also a tool to delegitimize that opposition.

Soros himself is, of course, the most obvious target.

Today, as protesters across the United States take to the streets against police brutality, the name “George Soros” trends on Twitter; right-wingers assert that these protesters are not genuinely expressing grief and anger about the continued killing of black Americans by police officers, but are demonstrating because they were put up to it by Soros. Some prominent conservatives are even saying Soros should be arrested.

Nor is this a wholly 2020 phenomenon. In 2018, ahead of the U.S. midterms, Soros was blamed for everything - from protests against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to a migrant caravan threatening to "invade" America’s southern border.

Cesar Sayoc mailed Soros, among other high-profile and liberal-leaning figures, a pipe bomb; his social media accounts were full of anti-Semitic and pro-Trump memes, one of which described Soros as a "Judeo-plutocratic Bolshevik Zionist." The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter claimed Soros was secretly behind the migrant caravan. He killed 11 Jews in prayer whom he blamed for participating in the plot.

That same year, citing "an increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary," Open Society Foundations, Soros’s philanthropic operation, announced its international operations would move from Budapest to Berlin. Clearly, Soros himself is a key subject of these conspiracy theories — and they directly impact him and his philanthropic work.

Egyutt (Together) opposition party activist removes a government billboard displaying George Soros and his 'plan' to settle a million migrants in Europe per year. Budapest, Hungary, October 5, 2017Credit: \ Bernadett Szabo/ REUTERS

But Soros, whose net worth is estimated to be $8.3 billion, is not the only victim. There are many others who don’t have billions and who are also damaged by Soros conspiracy theories.

To take the hydroxychloroquine coronavirus example: It’s not just Soros who’s being attacked. It’s also an attempt to delegitimize science itself (as being contaminated by "Soros") while boosting a right-wing political force.

Insinuating a Soros plot is a deliberate distraction from the 100,000 (and counting) American dead. It is an excuse not to take responsibility, a pivot by a president who refused to take the virus seriously at first, and now recommends popping a miracle pill that could kill them.

Back in 2018, the New York Post jumped on the "Soros connection" of two women who confronted then-Senator Jeff Flake over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, accused of attempted sexual assault. "Look who was behind the Jeff Flake elevator setup," the headline read, the implication being that Soros pushed the two women to confront the senator.

That the center that employed the protestors received money from Open Society was a fact. But the idea that Soros was behind that particular confrontation, and the protests more generally, was not only untrue, but insulting to a substantial number of people, some themselves survivors of sexual assault, who freely chose to speak up against Kavanaugh’s speedy confirmation. The Soros trope was more than insulting; it was delegitimizing.

The same goes for Rudy Giuliani’s unhinged attack on Soros’s Jewishness late last year. After accusing Soros of controlling U.S. diplomats, he declared, "Soros is hardly a Jew. I’m more of a Jew than Soros is. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel. He’s a horrible human being." Giuliani was talking about Soros the individual, and handily pointing out his Jewish origins for an appreciative hard right — but he was also using "Soros" to slur and delegitimize Democrat-voting U.S. Jews (some 80 percent of American Jews in the 2018 midterms).

It’s no accident that Donald Trump used the same tack of trying to police and demean his Jewish political opponents a few months earlier, announcing that voting for a Democrat means, "you're being disloyal to Jewish people and you're being very disloyal to Israel."

The United States is hardly alone in pushing conspiracy theories that smear Soros, yes, but also push the people supported by his philanthropy further into the margins.

The Hungarian parliament (which has already passed the "Stop Soros" law criminalizing assistance to undocumented immigrants) recently ratified legislation (ostensibly due to the coronavirus pandemic) which gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unchecked power. Orbán said on state radio that those critical of the move were part of a network led by Soros whose tentacles reached deep into the Brussels bureacracy.

Like Orban’s previous attacks on Soros, this conspiracy theory smacks of anti-Semitism, with its whispers of a Jewish financier controlling politicians all over the world, and the nefarious intention to turn nation-states more "cosmopolitan," or (((globalist.))) But it does something else, too: it renders moot any criticism — and any critics — of Orbán’s parliamentary power grab.

It was in Budapest, incidentally, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair Netanyahu, said that "radical" Soros organizations were "destroying Israel from the inside…working day and night with an unlimited budget to rob the country of its Jewish identity."

Yair Netanyahu backs Rudy Giuliani's assertion that Soros is the GOP's 'number one enemy': 'He's also enemy number one of Israel!'Credit: Twitter

That’s a conscious insult aimed at Soros. But more significantly, it is also about delegitimizing those causes Soros and Open Society support in Israel and the Palestinian territories, such as providing scholarships for Palestinian students in the West Bank and Gaza and funding human rights groups using the judicial system to challenge discrimination. If Soros’s efforts are destructive, the thinking goes, then these Palestinian students and Israeli activists are, too.

And while the right wing provides the most notorious examples of blaming the meta-Soros- for dissent and to strip activists of agency, there are offenders on the left, too.

When, for example, Max Blumenthal goes on The Jimmy Dore Show to allege that Soros is funding regime change in Venezuela and Hong Kong, he reduces those protesting, at great personal risk, to mere pawns.

Thousands in Hong Kong have taken to the streets to protest national security laws imposed by Beijing. To say that they are Soros stooges (or shills) removes their individual capacity and volition to think, choose, and take sides. It also acts to whitewash and legitimize the authoritarian regimes against whom they’re protesting.

Conspiracy theories about Soros, ubiquitous though they are, must be disputed, and not only because they are factually incorrect, or because they are unfair to one man. They are also unfair to the many men and women whom these conspiracy theories patronize, delegitimize and, often, further marginalize.

These theories aren’t only about increasingly vicious political partisanship, but about the attempt to strip political agency from those with dissenting views, to subvert their standing and, sometimes, even to endanger them.

Those pushing the Soros conspiracy theories are well aware of their malign power. The rest of us need to be, too.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor at the New Statesman and the author of the forthcoming book, The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

This op-ed was updated on 31 May 2020 to reflect the expansion of the Soros conspiracy theory to include protests following George Floyd’s death

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