clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“Soros-backed”: The GOP’s favorite attack on the man prosecuting Trump, explained

How billionaire George Soros was dragged into the Trump indictment debate — and why many are saying it’s antisemitic to have done so.

George Soros speaks at the World Economic Forum in 2020.
Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Donald Trump’s outraged response to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s indictment of him contained the usual mix of bombast and self-pity, with a predictable dollop of conspiracy-mongering. One line of attack stood out in particular: He accused Bragg of being “hand-picked and funded by George Soros.”

Trump wasn’t alone. The alleged Bragg-Soros connection has been everywhere in the Republican response to the indictment, including in comments from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, and a host of other prominent Republicans and Fox News coverage. It often gets shorthanded into a two-word phrase: “Soros-backed.”

Soros, a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor and billionaire financier, is a longstanding hate figure among conservatives. Over the past two decades, elements of the right in both the United States and his native Hungary have engaged in a concerted campaign to turn Soros into a boogeyman — the shadowy power behind transatlantic liberalism.

Though Bragg has never been directly funded by Soros, the accusation of a link isn’t entirely out of whole cloth — Bragg’s 2021 campaign for district attorney does seem to have indirectly received some of his financial support. But the intensity of the accusation certainly doesn’t seem proportionate to the tenuousness of the connection.

To liberals, the Soros accusation smacks of nothing less than antisemitism. “Just replace ‘Soros-backed’ with ‘Jewy Jew Jewish Jewy Jew,’” the popular comedian John Fugelsang tweeted in response to DeSantis’s attack on Bragg. Naturally, conservatives have denied the charge and argued that liberals are just trying to suppress reasonable criticism of a prominent Democratic donor.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with criticizing Soros’s philanthropic work, especially his partisan donations to the Democratic Party. But it’s difficult to separate the criticisms from the context — and the last two decades of attacks on Soros have turned him into a stand-in for a certain kind of Jewish “rootless cosmopolitan” that allows politicians to appeal to antisemitism without having to do so explicitly.

In the Trump populist era, attacks on so-called “globalists” — a term long used on the extreme right as a euphemism for “Jews” — have become increasingly common on the mainstream right. The increasing mainstream flirtation with antisemitic stereotypes and rhetoric has made the subtext of the attacks on Soros harder and harder to deny.

How a Jewish philanthropist became a right-wing boogeyman

To understand how Soros has become a central figure in the debate over Trump’s prosecution, you need to understand a little about Soros himself — and why the right came to hate him.

Soros, who was born in Hungary in 1930, lived under both Nazi occupation and communist dictatorship before fleeing to the United Kingdom. As an adult, he went into finance — first in the UK and then in the US, ultimately making billions through (among other things) currency speculation. He subsequently became a philanthropist, and his interests trended toward political causes — specifically, promoting democracy to prevent others from suffering under totalitarian regimes.

Soros is a liberal, in the philosophical sense of the word. He named his charitable group the Open Society Foundation after philosopher Karl Popper’s famous book defending democracy and individual rights, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

After the end of the Cold War, he spent millions funding institutions in post-communist societies — most notably his native Hungary — designed to ease the transition away from communism and strengthen democracy’s foundations.

During the 2004 election cycle, Soros made his first major foray into American politics, donating roughly $27 million to various efforts to defeat President George W. Bush. “When President Bush says, as he does frequently, that ‘freedom’ will prevail, in fact he means that America will prevail,” he said at the time. “I am rather sensitive to Orwellian doublespeak because I grew up with it in Hungary first under Nazi and later Communist rule.”

The anti-Bush campaign is, per his biographer Emily Tamkin, the thing that first turned him into a conservative villain. Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert suggested in an interview at the time that Soros’s wealth “could be drug money” — a claim that Tamkin traced back to a pamphlet published by acolytes of the conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche.

But the crucial event, the one that truly popularized Soros demonization, was the election of Barack Obama. By that point, Soros had become a major funder of progressive causes — and Obama’s victory had driven the conservative movement off the rails. Conspiracy theories, like the notion that Obama was born in Kenya, became increasingly common in right-wing media.

Glenn Beck’s show on Fox News, basically a primetime conspiracy theory hour, focused its fire on Soros. In a 2010 three-part special titled “Exposing George Soros: The Puppet Master?” Beck accused Soros of being the secret hand behind a slew of coups and revolutions in the former Eastern Bloc. “So, what is his target now? Us. America,” Beck told his viewers.

A still from Beck’s Soros coverage in 2009.
Fox News

This, in case you’re wondering, very clearly crossed the line into antisemitism. It’s true that Soros supported pro-democracy activists and civil society groups in former communist states — but that doesn’t make him the “puppet master” secretly getting people out into the streets to demonstrate against dictators. The idea that a Jewish financier is secretly masterminding global events against the interests of rooted local conservatives — it doesn’t take a scholar of antisemitism to see what Beck was drawing on here.

Around the same time, the knives were coming out for Soros in Hungary.

A right-wing former prime minister named Viktor Orbán who had just returned to power worked with two American political consultants to find a new enemy — a foil that could be used to justify Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian ruling style. They settled on Soros: With his transnational identity and support for liberal causes, he served as an ideal villain to contrast with the culturally conservative Orbán.

The Hungarian prime minister began talking about Soros in dire terms, positioning him as the head of an international plot to undermine Hungarian independence from within. A 2018 speech was typical: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

These were classic antisemitic tropes: The idea of crafty, disloyal Jews using their financial clout to manipulate the world from the shadows is a mainstay of antisemitic conspiracy theories like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Attacking Soros in this way allowed Orbán to draw on centuries of European antisemitism while maintaining a (thin) veneer of plausible deniability — a hallmark of his particular style of anti-democratic politics.

Trump’s presidential run, characterized by its weak relationship with the truth and populist attacks on the global “elite,” was also ideally suited to elevate Soros as a principal villain.

When Trump and his allies tried to position the so-called “migrant caravan” as a major threat to America before the 2018 midterms, the president told reporters that “a lot of people say” Soros was behind it. You heard similar rhetoric from Donald Trump Jr. and Republicans in Congress.

This was a baseless lie, and an antisemitic one to boot. The idea that Jewish money is bringing in nonwhite immigrants to menace the United States is a staple of far-right rhetoric — one that had been voiced by a shooter who killed 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.

Last year, Tucker Carlson aired an inflammatory documentary about Soros’s role in Hungary — one that drew on all the same antisemitic stereotypes. The head of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish anti-hate group, wrote, “It’s appalling to see Tucker Carlson & Fox invoke the kind of anti-Semitic tropes typically found in white supremacist media.”

Is connecting Alvin Bragg to George Soros antisemitic?

It’s important to have these examples in mind when we think about the “Soros-backed” criticism of Bragg.

Such rhetoric is falling in a particular context: that there is a very long history of saying things about Soros that draw directly on antisemitic ideas and conspiracy theories, one that has become increasingly popular on the American and international right over time. Invoking Soros in such an atmosphere is not innocent, and it’s even worse when you’re implying that Bragg is somehow arresting Trump on Soros’s marching orders.

That is not to say that Soros should be above criticism, or that every attack on him is antisemitic.

Many more thoughtful conservatives have argued that Soros is a principal funder of the “progressive prosecutor” movement, a nationwide campaign to elect district attorneys who aim to try and tackle problems like mass incarceration by (for example) refusing to prosecute certain low-level crimes. Bragg is one such progressive prosecutor, and seems to be the beneficiary of Soros’s funding: Shortly after the group Color of Change pledged roughly $1 million to support Bragg, they received roughly $1 million in funding from Soros.

Therefore, conservatives argue, when people like Trump or DeSantis call Bragg and other progressive prosecutors “Soros-backed,” they are merely stating the facts. Here’s National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke making the case forcefully:

George Soros is not hiding his involvement in backing the election of the sort of prosecutors whom he prefers — we might call them “Soros-backed” prosecutors — and nor should he hide that involvement. This is America. In free countries, free people are allowed to argue for whichever sort of elected officials they prefer. And in return, other free people are permitted to criticize them. There is nothing factually incorrect about Ron DeSantis describing prosecutors who have been backed by Soros as “Soros-backed”; there is nothing morally wrong with Ron DeSantis going on to criticize those prosecutors, or the results they yield, or George Soros for having helped them get there; and there is nothing “antisemitic” about Jews who hold political opinions being criticized for those political opinions, as would anyone else be.

Cooke is right in one sense: Conservative criticisms of Soros’s support of “progressive prosecutors” are not necessarily antisemitic. If what they were saying was “progressive prosecutors raise crime rates and it’s bad that Soros is supporting them,” that would be one thing.

But what they’re actually doing is claiming that Trump’s prosecution is illegitimate and politically motivated — and that support from Soros is proof of said illegitimacy. The same “puppet-master” implication is invoked (remember Trump’s words: “hand-picked”). And it beggars belief that these conservatives don’t know that the Trumpist faithful won’t fill in those conspiratorial (and yes, antisemitic) blanks.

So it’s certainly possible to criticize George Soros without being antisemitic in the abstract. But at this point, we know what a dog whistle from Donald Trump and his ilk sounds like, and it’s hard to ignore that the chorus of attacks on the Soros-Bragg connection hit those same notes.