The killing of George Floyd, an American-born African American man, and the protests against police brutality that have engulfed the nation since his death would seem to not have much in common with George Soros, the nearly 90-year-old Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and billionaire philanthropist.
And yet over the last week conspiracy theorists have been busy linking Soros to the protests and the present moment.
On June 2, former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani opined that there was "coordination" between the protests, and a "guiding hand in some of this." He went on to link Antifa and Soros. Bill Mitchell, a Miami-based conservative talk show host, tweeted, “Will someone PLEASE just arrest George Soros?” on May 30, the same day he pinned the protests on the DNC, and queried if protestors were a "Soros rent-a-mob?"
On June 1, a Fox News guest said that Soros should be deported because he is “the destruction of our civilization and a clear and present danger to our country.” He went on, “Follow the money and I suspect you're going to find Open Society Foundation and George Soros' fingerprints.”
The ADL recently reported that negative tweets about Soros jumped from 20,000 per day to over 500,000 from May 26 to May 30. The tweets range from Candace Owens insisting that Soros backs Antifa, to former game show host Chuck Woolery claiming the protests are the work of Soros. It’s practically become a meme.
Search “George Soros” on right-wing Twitter and you will find crowds of agitators either convinced that George Soros is funding and organizing the protests or attempting to convince others that’s the case. Blaming Soros is a way of delegitimizing the protests; calls for justice and participation in protests are, at their core, about who gets to participate and be heard in a democracy. Claiming they are being masterminded from a backroom denies the agency of every protester on the ground.
Of course, Soros conspiracy theories are hardly new. They’ve been around, on and off and around the world, for decades. Soros is the perfect bogeyman: As a Jewish American financier, he attracts anti-Semites and the anti-elite. As the long-time major funder of liberal causes, he draws those who despise open society, the very concept he has underwritten around the world. Commentators who distort the facts behind that philanthropy create a fun-house mirror that takes a true statement — say, “George Soros gave money to help advocates fight to restore immigrants’ welfare benefits” (correct) — and morph it into a false one — “George Soros is flooding the country with a migrant caravan” (very, very false).
In these weeks of American anger, the far-right has found Soros to be the perfect foil. To understand why he is being attacked for, or even linked to, these particular protests against police brutality and racial injustice, one must understand that Soros has long supported criminal justice reform and backed people who are willing to push for greater democracy. What those seeing only ill-will (or worse, nefarious back room dealing) in a time of peaceful protest have done is to see Soros’s effort to make criminal justice more equitable and use it to accuse him of funding, or literally paying off, the protestors asking for the very same thing.
Soros began to push for criminal justice reform back in the 1990s, long before it was popular. He came into the issue through drug policy; he was among the first to believe that the “war on drugs” was a folly. Soros was sure drug use and addiction was a medical issue, not a criminal one, a position that others in the criminal justice reform movement embraced. At the time, it was not a nationally, or globally, accepted stance.
To give one example: In the late 1990s, Soros established Open Society America and set up an Open Society field office in Baltimore. Kurt Schmoke, the city’s first African American mayor, had long been on the record wanting to treat drug use, abuse and addiction through the public health system, rather than the criminal justice system. Backed by Soros, the Baltimore field office thus put millions of dollars behind Schmoke’s initiatives on this front, including one that tried to use the city’s needle exchange program to train drug users to recognize an overdose and treat it with Narcan (Naloxone), which reverses the effects of an overdose. Open Society went further than needle exchange programs and also gave out grants to encourage Maryland to reform its parole system and awarded fellowships and grants to individuals and organizations working on providing effective alternatives to incarceration. (I interviewed some of the grantees in the course of working on my book on Soros, and while they still felt that they were working against the prevailing system, they felt that they were able to do a lot.)
But it’s not just his philanthropic work that links Soros to those who have pushed for criminal justice reform. He has also funded progressive prosecutors in their district attorneys races. One was Larry Krasner, who beat six other Democrats to win a primary and went on to become the district attorney in Philadelphia. Not all of them win of course; in upstate New York, his money wasn’t enough to get progressive candidate Shani Curry Mitchell to defeat the Republican incumbent. These are people who have promised to reform the criminal justice system from within. That money may occasionally help win races, but it has also won him enemies, like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who accused Soros of “hijacking” American democracy last year even though backing those who support criminal justice reform could just as easily be describe as upholding democracy, or making democracy more universal.
Conspiracy theorists and strong-man world leaders alike blame Soros when their streets and plazas are consumed by protesters. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted in 2018 that “the famous Hungarian Jew George Soros” had been behind Gezi Park protests against urban development in Istanbul in 2013, a full five years earlier. Former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico blamed outside forces for anti-corruption protests that eventually led to his resignation and said that the president at the time, Andrej Kiska, who was critical of him, had been influenced by Soros (Soros rejected Fico’s claims). In Romania, one television broadcaster insisted Soros was paying dogs to come out to the streets during the anti-corruption protests in that country in 2017 (according to this broadcaster, the dogs were offered less than their humans). And, of course, there is Soros’s one-time grantee, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — who went to Oxford on a Soros scholarship — and now blames Soros for everything from migrants to criticism of Hungary’s handling of the coronavirus.
Back in the U.S., in the fall of 2018, when Americans took to the halls of the Senate to protest the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after news broke that he’d allegedly attempted to sexually assault Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in high school, Trump tweeted: “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love! #Troublemakers.”
It has even happened before on protests related to police brutality; Soros was accused of paying for protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after Michael Brown Jr. was killed. There, too, he had given money to grassroots groups and activists; but he had not paid for or organized protests.
Soros’s Open Society Foundations do support anti-corruption NGOs and grassroots groups around the world and right here at home. But the idea that Soros has organized protests, and then paid people to attend them, isn’t just absurd and wrong. The implication that protesters are paid to shout, or hold their signs, or weep in rage, is fundamentally an insult to the initiative and agency of those who got up and took to the streets to participate in democracy.
The very name “Open Society” comes from Karl Popper’s 1945 book of political philosophy "The Open Society and Its Enemies." Popper argued that no one philosophy or ideology or person can ever really know or say what is true, and so we all must be allowed to participate in a democracy, freely express our ideas and shape our societies.
We can argue that no one single person should have enough money to give toward all these causes, and that the very idea of billionaires in a society is counter to the idea of democracy.
But Soros, in putting his money toward reforming a deeply unequal and racist criminal justice system and in supporting causes about which people care enough to go out and protest, has tried to make ours a participatory democracy in more than just name. That far-right agitators are calling for his arrest during these protests tells us far more about who part of this country believes have permission to raise their voices and participate in a democracy than it does about Soros.