The billionaire was the first target in a series of mail bombs sent this week, an attack that comes as vilification of Soros has reached new heights
As investigators seek answers in the case of mail bombs sent to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and others, there will be no shortage of evidence regarding the first target, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
The bomb maker’s motivations remain unknown. What is clear is that the attempted attack comes as the demonization of Soros in the US, previously limited to fringe groups on the far right, has reached new heights. More recently it has been taken up by the most senior Republican politicians in the country, up to and including the president.
Experts worry it is a sign that taboos on public antisemitism have all but disappeared. Indeed Soros’s son, Alexander Soros, said in an op-ed on Wednesday that many attacks on his father over the years have been “dripping with the poison of anti-semitism”.
Earlier this month, Donald Trump repeated the familiar accusation that Soros pays for protesters, when he said that the “elevator screamers”– protesters who were confronting senators over their votes for Brett Kavanaugh, the then-nominee to the supreme court – had their signs “paid for by Soros and others”.
And in Minnesota last week, a TV ad in support of the Republican congressional candidate Jim Hagedorn described Soros as a “connoisseur of chaos” and a “funder of the left”. It implied that Hagedorn’s Democratic opponent, Dan Feehan, a combat veteran, was “owned” by Soros due to his employment by a centrist foreign policy thinktank, the Center for a New American Security.
The condemnation of Soros – a Hungarian-born Jew whose very open and public giving favors progressive causes – has been a constant drumbeat in countries where he works. This is particularly true of former Soviet bloc states like Russia, Hungary and Poland, where Soros initiatives have been banned and politically attacked. It surfaced in US rightwing media during the Bush administration, when Soros became more active in opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
From the racist white nationalist site the Daily Stormer to major conservative media stars, the right has been increasingly united over the last decade in seeing the hidden hand of Soros, whom they frequently describe as a “globalist”, in all manner of events.
He has been falsely accused by the right of orchestrating alleged violence from so-called “antifa” groups, manipulating the world economy, being a wartime Nazi collaborator and sponsoring the entirely fictional project of “white genocide”.
Figures like Alex Jones imagine Soros as the manipulative mastermind of a vast “globalist” conspiracy that seeks to restore the world to elite control, kill millions and reduce humanity to slavery.
Breitbart has published scores of articles on Soros’s alleged influence. Talkshow host Michael Savage has told his 11m daily listeners that Soros should be arrested and the groups he sponsors investigated by Congress. Earlier this year Fox News’ Tucker Carlson accused Soros of hating the United States, and on Monday night he laughed when a guest brought up the pipe bomb sent to Soros’s house.
Politicians have adopted the rhetoric. The Trump-aligned Florida congressman Matt Gaetz tweeted the suggestion that Soros might be paying money to Honduran immigrants to “join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time”. This suggestion was uncomfortably close to the white nationalist “white genocide” narrative that accuses Jews of orchestrating the demographic replacement of white Americans.
Indeed, advocacy groups like the ADL say that all of the conspiracy theories about Soros frequently use “well-worn antisemitic tropes”. Other experts and activists agree.
The discourse about Soros is a sign that the lessons of the second world war and the Holocaust are being forgotten, said Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University, and the author of several books on extremism and conspiracy theory.
“The knowledge of the Holocaust created a very strong taboo on the expression of antisemitism,” Barkun said.
“The farther we have come from the immediate postwar period, the weaker that taboo has become.”
Matthew Lyons, a researcher and the author of several books on rightwing populism and far-right ideology, said that commonly circulated narratives about George Soros resonate with a long history of antisemitic myths and stereotypes.
“One of the central antisemitic themes for a thousand years, at least, has been the notion that Jews represent this evil, super-powerful group that operates behind the scenes,” Lyons said.
“Often, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories don’t explicitly talk about Jews or ‘the Jews’ as a group. There’s some kind of code word or symbol that’s used in place.”
Encoding Soros as a “globalist” ties in with much older ways of talking about Jews in Europe. “For centuries,” Lyons said, “Jews were characterized in Christian-dominated Europe as a people that didn’t have a country. They were the ‘wandering Jew’. They were seen as visitors or interlopers in other people’s countries and so they were international in that sense.”
Most of the right – and especially Republicans – customarily deny any link between their attacks on Soros and antisemitism.
A spokesman for Minnesota the Republican Jim Hagedorn, stressed that his campaign does not coordinate with the National Republican Congressional Committee, which made the ad. But he did not back away from what he described as the ad’s criticism of Soros’s “aggressive funding of far-left positions in the American political sphere”.
He compared attacks on Soros to the left’s criticisms of figures like the Koch brothers, two billionaires who lavishly fund rightwing political causes. The ad, he said, “is no more sinister than the messages in my opponents’ campaign”. He also pointed to alleged connections between Minnesota’s Democratic attorney-general candidate, Keith Ellison, and the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, who has repeatedly made antisemitic statements in public.
In light of pipe bomb attacks on figures, including Soros, who have loomed large in rightwing conspiracy theories, this may sound like whataboutery.
Lyons says, though, that while a legitimate discussion can be had about the outsized influence of wealthy people on our politics, in recent years the right has all too easily manipulated the sentiments that might inform that discussion.
“I think a lot of it goes back to the notion of the socialism of fools,” Lyons says, referring to the characterization of antisemitism frequently attributed to August Bebel.
“If you can take people’s anger at the people in power, take people’s sense of being beaten down and ripped off, take people’s sense that the economy is screwing them over, that their sense of entitlement is at risk, and blame it on the Jews or certain wealthy Jews, then that’s very helpful for deflecting people’s anger away from the actual systems of power.”