George Soros and Hillary Clinton in 2004. (Getty Images)
When the dust was cleared and the debris swept away, he stood revealed as Hillary Clinton’s most generous billionaire donor. Yet his name rarely surfaced during the presidential campaign—and that’s generally the way he likes it.Dark Money, Jane Mayer’s book about covert political funding, refers to the Koch brothers more than 300 times in its excoriation of the “radical right” but mentions progressive icon George Soros just six times; three are footnotes.
One of the planet’s richest men, his past marred with crimes and misdemeanors, the 86-year-old billionaire skates on. More than a decade ago, he moved his financial headquarters to Curaçao, a tax-free haven in the Caribbean designed for monied hypocrites who talk one game and play another. The place is not bulletproof; on occasion, Soros has been accused—and even convicted—of insider trading. A French court found him guilty of that crime and levied a fine of $2.3 million. In the parlance of the billionaires’ club, that was small change. Investigative journalists, a dwindling cadre, show little interest in him. They prefer to scrutinize safer, softer targets.
If they took even a cursory look, though, they would see that Soros’s global reach and influence far outstrip those of the Koch brothers or other liberal bogeymen—and that underlying it all is a vision both dystopian and opportunistic. “The main obstacle to a stable and just world order,” Soros has declared, “is the United States.” Ergo, that constitutional republic must be weakened and its allies degraded. The Sorosian world order—one of open borders and global governance, antithetical to the ideals and experience of the West—could then assume command.
George Soros has been an escape artist since his adolescence in Budapest, when Nazi occupiers gave him his first life lessons. Until then, the Schwartz family lived in a large house, located on an island in the Danube. György’s mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of affluent silk merchants. His father, Tivadar, was a prominent lawyer and eccentric; in good weather, he commuted to his office by rowboat.
But all was not as it appeared, even before the predations of the Third Reich. Anti-Semitism ran deep in Eastern Europe, and Hungarian Jews lived on a knife blade, no matter how large their bank accounts. The secularist Tivadar never attended synagogue, but he had a devout belief in Esperanto, the artificial language that he and other disciples believed would eventually become the world’s tongue. The Tower of Babel would be razed, and nationalism would disappear, along with dialects, local attitudes, and national boundaries. But that world lay in the future. For the present, Jewish identity would have to be papered over.
Accordingly, the family changed its name to Soros—“to soar,” in Esperanto. In 1944, the personification of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, came to German-occupied Hungary to administrate the Final Solution. But Tivadar had anticipated him. By then, he had purchased false identity documents for himself and the family. He bribed a government official to “adopt” György and testify to investigators that the boy was his Christian godson.
Now came the fulcrum of Soros’s life and career. The bureaucrat who housed teenage György was assigned the task of confiscating Jewish land and property. Acolyte in tow, he went from house to house, making inventories for Nazi officers. It’s unfair sweepingly to condemn those individuals, Jewish and Gentile, who, in order to survive, sometimes collaborated with evil. Still, most of those who did escape the Holocaust were tormented by pangs of remorse and survivor’s guilt.
Not Soros. In 1998, 60 Minutes profiled the man whose stock-market manipulations were making news. CBS interviewer Steve Kroft asked him about his wartime experiences:
KROFT: You watched lots of people get shipped off to the death camps.
SOROS: Right. I was 14 years old. And I would say that that’s when my character was made.
KROFT: In what way?
SOROS: That one should think ahead. One should understand and—and anticipate events and when—when one is threatened. It was a tremendous threat of evil. I mean, it was a—a very personal experience of evil. . . .
KROFT: I mean, that’s—that sounds like an experience that would send lots of people to the psychiatric couch for many, many years. Was it difficult?
SOROS: Not—not at all. Not at all. Maybe as a child you don’t—you don’t see the connection. But it was—it created no—no problem at all.
KROFT: No feeling of guilt?
KROFT: For example that, “I’m Jewish and here I am, watching these people go. I could just as easily be there. I should be there.” None of that?
SOROS: Well, of course I c— I could be on the other side or I could be the one from whom the thing is being taken away. But there was no sense that I shouldn’t be there, because that was—well, actually, in a funny way, it’s just like in markets—that if I weren’t there—of course, I wasn’t doing it, but somebody else would—would—would be taking it away anyhow. And it was the—whether I was there or not, I was only a spectator, the property was being taken away. So the—I had no role in taking away that property. So I had no sense of guilt.
Adolf Eichmann offered an oddly similar rationale at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem. “Why me?” he demanded. “Why not the local policemen, thousands of them? They would have been shot if they had refused to round up the Jews for the death camps. Why not hang them for not wanting to be shot? Why me? Everybody killed the Jews.”
When the war ended, Hungary’s troubles continued. Soviet troops moved in, and the new rulers ruthlessly expunged the Germans—and their collaborators. Yet György was never punished, never even reprimanded for aiding the Nazis. Petr Cibulka, a onetime Czech dissident, told a British journalist that the only way for Soros to avoid reprisals “would be an agreement to co-operate with the GRU Soviet [Russian] military intelligence or perhaps also with the NKVD [later KGB].” Somehow, the 16-year-old Soros passed through “countless Red Army check points, without a passport that would be valid, without a Soviet approved permit to leave the country, without money and without any outside help. . . . His stay in the U.K. and his 1947 enrollment to the London School of Economics, and to be able financially to support himself during that time, with no mentioned help or financial backing, and to be able to graduate in 1952 at that young age, this all gives me chills.” In his own account of his days at the London School of Economics, Soros maintained that he had been a scholarship student.
The undergraduate, his name now Anglicized, was beguiled by the writings of Karl Popper (1902–94). The Viennese-born professor devoted his life and work to what he called the Open Society—a place free of such “tribal” affinities as religion, nationalism, and traditional economic formulas. But he also denounced, as a “monument of human smallness,” Plato’s concept of the philosopher king. “What a contrast,” Popper wrote, “between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesman against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom. . . . What a decline from this world of irony and reason . . . down to Plato’s kingdom of the sage whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men; although not quite high enough to forgo the use of lies, or to neglect the sorry trade of every shaman—the selling of spells . . . in exchange for power over his fellow-men.”
Was Soros beginning to confront the implications of these big ideas? No one knew—perhaps not even Soros himself, as he strove to find a place in postwar Britain. Alas for the new graduate, the financial world proved to be a closedsociety. No one seemed interested in his sheepskin or his multilingual abilities. Finally, he found work at the London-based merchant bank Singer and Friedlander because, he stated in a rare moment of self-deprecation, the managing director was a fellow Hungarian.
In 1930s Hollywood, when former Magyars like Alexander Korda, Peter Lorre, Leslie Howard, and Bela Lugosi reigned supreme, so many of their countrymen applied for positions that one film studio put up a sign: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian, you must also have talent.” So it proved in 1950s London, where the new hire could not rest on his Budapest connections. He had to demonstrate a gift for creating revenue—and he did. Within a few years, he had mastered the craft of arbitraging—making profits by trading different currencies. As befit a man with his background, he also promoted European stocks, then winning favor with U.S. institutional investors. Through Soros, they gained opportunities in the new Coal and Steel Community, soon to become the Common Market.
By 1959, Soros had relocated to New York City, the financial nexus of the West. He continued to be a salaried employee but a high-level one. He told colleagues that he planned to work for three more years—enough to accumulate a personal fortune of $500,000. He would then return to England to study philosophy. That event never occurred. His ego kept getting in the way. “I admit that I have always harbored an exaggerated view of my self-importance,” he later admitted. “To put it bluntly, I fancied myself as some kind of god.”
In the 1960s, the fancied god conceived his Theory of Reflexivity. Despite its Einsteinian overtones, the concept had a great deal of mumbo and not a little jumbo. Essentially, it stated that those who observe a phenomenon—like economics or politics—become a part of what they’re observing, and thus risk losing their objectivity. Economic arenas—Wall Street, for example—are particularly vulnerable to forces that have little to do with empirical evidence or historical precedent. Knowing this, the cunning witness can make a whacking good profit if he stays above the fray, the tipsters, and the “smart money.”
The recession of 1973 provided one of many examples. After years of wild, bullish ascents, the market seemed impervious to business cycles. Then it crashed. Investors waited for the predicted rebound—and were still waiting five years later. The resignation of Richard Nixon, the oil shortages, the seizing of American hostages in Iran, and the inept response of Jimmy Carter all put paid to the good times. And yet, a few speculators profited from these disasters; Soros was one of them.
Soros went on to enjoy many other triumphs, and none did more for his image than a killing made across the pond two decades later. He had gone out on his own by then. Aware that the British government was propping up the pound sterling, he and his associates acquired millions of pounds and then shorted the currency, betting that its worth would decrease. After some bad press and some bloody political infighting, Prime Minister John Major caved, withdrawing the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The pound plummeted, and Soros pocketed more than $1 billion. Retirees on fixed incomes saw their pensions diminished and their savings wiped out. But the human consequences had no effect on Soros; indeed, he gained in stature. In high-finance circles, he was the “man who broke the Bank of England.”
The subprime mortgage crisis of the 2000s offered another opportunity. Houses had been overvalued and underfinanced. The day of reckoning occurred in 2008. It led to the downfall of Lehman Brothers, the failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the near-collapse of the entire global financial system. Again, Soros came smiling through. “I’m having a very good crisis,” he told a reporter.
Soros had long since become wealthy beyond avarice. Two large alimonies (he married for a third time in 2013) and the education of his heirs (like Donald Trump, he has five children), plus lavish homes in Westchester and on Long Island, scarcely made a dent in the family fortune, which continued to grow. But along the way, it occurred to Soros, as it had to many another financial giant before him, that mere getting and spending were not enough for a man of his colossal self-measurement. He put his sons and other principals in charge of his companies and hedge funds. Thereafter, like the owner of beach frontage whose landscape is obstructed by trees, he devoted himself to cutting down whatever blocked his worldview.
His presidential candidate lost in 2016, but this setback likely won’t slow Soros down. His political activism portfolio is well diversified. Backing organizations dedicated to social agitation and change-for-change’s-sake, Soros has caused tsunamis of upheaval, in the United States and around the world.
A few cases in point: last August, DC Leaks, a group of adroit hackers, got into the Soros files and released them. Perhaps the most notorious of the disclosures concerned Soros’s Open Society Foundations, named in honor of Sir Karl Popper. Underneath its lofty rhetoric, the organization was clearly devoted to the eradication of national sovereignty. A key Open Society paper, hacked in its entirety, described the Syrian refugee crisis as an opportunity to “shape conversations about rethinking migrations governance.” Translation: use agitprop to flood Europe and the U.S. with evacuees (among them some probable terrorists); make the old borders and institutions irrelevant; and, in the process, create a world liberated from the restraints of constitutionalism, American exceptionalism, free-market capitalism, and other obsolete isms.
One of Soros’s long-standing targets is the State of Israel. Providing funding for groups devoted to BDS (boycott, disinvestment, sanctions) against the Jewish State is only part of the equation. According to DC Leaks, Soros gave more than $2 million to Adalah, an “independent human rights organization.” As a matter of policy, Adalah demands that governments sever diplomatic relations with the only democracy in the Middle East. Soros also donated more than $1 million to the Palestinian media center I’lam, which regularly accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing. Though the Open Society Foundations’ biases are obvious, its members prefer to work under deep cover, as one of the leaked documents describes. “For a variety of reasons, we wanted to construct a diversified portfolio of grants dealing with Israel and Palestine . . . as well as building a portfolio of Palestinian grants and in all cases to maintain a low profile and relative distance—particularly on the advocacy front.”
Print reporters were enlisted in the cause of propagating the Soros mind-set. As recorded by WikiLeaks, Soros operatives, determined to shape media coverage of events in Ukraine, were instructed to “select journalists from the five target countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece) and offer them long stay reporting trips in Ukraine. Rather than specify what they should write about they should make suggestions for articles; we retain a veto on stories we think are counterproductive. Suggestion that we liaise directly with journalists to determine interest.”
In the United States, Soros bankrolls a broad range of political and cultural causes. One is to destabilize the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. In 2015, he dedicated $650,000 for the purpose of shaping Pope Francis’s U.S. visit, using left-leaning Catholic groups to promote gay marriage, abortion, and physician-assisted suicide. Leading the effort was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, a self-professed Catholic. Bill Donohue, outspoken president of the Catholic League, vainly called for Podesta’s dismissal. “He is fomenting revolution in the Catholic Church, creating mutiny and is totally unethical,” Donohue said. “He is the front man for George Soros to create a host of phony anti-Catholic groups. These are not just bad comments, as some have suggested. These words are orchestrated, calculated and designed to create fissures in the Catholic Church.”
Another Soros favorite is Black Lives Matter, the radical protest group dedicated to the proposition that police are inherently racist. Working the streets with incendiary rhetoric, at odds with the truth about black-on-black crime, BLM has helped foster “depolicing,” as Heather Mac Donald describes it, in high-crime urban areas. In 2015, after days of rioting in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, an Open Society Foundations memo excitedly commented that “recent events offer a unique opportunity to accelerate the dismantling of structural inequality generated and maintained by local law enforcement and to engage residents who have historically been disenfranchised in Baltimore City in shaping and monitoring reform.” Three straight acquittals of police officers involved in the matter left the prosecution’s case in shreds but made no difference to the Open Society Foundations. It has donated at least $650,000 to Black Lives Matter and pledged more assistance to antipolice factions across the country. These activities prompted the father of one of the Dallas police officers killed during a Black Lives Matter protest to sue Soros (along with other individuals and groups) for inspiring a “war on police.”
Soros’s open-borders obsessions can be seen in the $2 million he gave to opponents of Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration. The sheriff’s “influence on the national conversation about immigration has been poisonous,” said a Soros spokesman. Arpaio fired back, calling the billionaire a “far-left globalist” who was trying to “buy a local race.” The sheriff failed to ride in on Trump’s November wagon, though, and Soros enjoyed one of his few election-night victories. Soros also spent millions backing liberal-minded district attorneys—they all opposed jail time for nonviolent drug offenders—in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, and Texas. Some of these candidates won; most lost.
The emphasis on leniency for drug offenders is no accident. Two decades ago, Soros began an ardent campaign to decriminalize marijuana and other illegal drugs, which he promoted as an issue of fairness: Why should abusers be arrested and imprisoned when what they really needed was counseling and rehabilitation? To that end, he backed the Lindesmith Center, a “drug policy institute,” which served as Soros’s echo chamber on matters concerning proscribed substances. “I’m sure Lindesmith’s desire to take us into nihilism and chaos and to jam our hospital emergency rooms with more users has some useful purpose,” scoffed a spokesman for General Barry McCaffrey, during his tenure as Bill Clinton’s drug czar. Since then, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have all legalized marijuana, and Heads, a pro-drug magazine, enthusiastically dubbed Soros “Daddy Weedbucks.” But data are confirming what skeptics like McCaffrey had argued all along: that legalization serves as a forerunner to more drug use rather than less, more emergency-room visits rather than fewer, increased danger to the health of the young, and a consequent weakening of the social fabric.
As the postpresidential fever abates, Soros’s work carries on. In a New York City luxury hotel, Soros recently huddled with other devastated operatives in the so-called Democratic Alliance, including former House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and Congressional Progressive Caucus cochairman Keith Ellison. According to Politico, they discussed strategies to combat President-elect Trump’s “terrifying assault on President’s Obama’s achievements.” Not all Democrats were pleased with the occasion. “The DA itself should be called into question,” said one attendee. “You can make a very good case it’s nothing more than a social club for a handful of wealthy white donors and labor union officials to drink wine and read memos, as the Democratic Party burns down around them.”
With the threat that a Trump presidency poses to their power, Soros and his allies figure to be even more voracious for influence—and secrecy. This is no time to let up. Yet Soros must occasionally think back to the professor whose writings he cherry-picked, using what was digestible and abandoning what could not be stomached. When he does, one tocsin is likely to cause discomfort even to this most insensitive of plutocrats: Popper’s reference to the figure “whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men.” Popper warned about this type long before George Soros perverted Sir Karl’s teachings and crowned himself a philosopher king.
Stefan Kanfer, a City Journal contributing editor, is the author, most recently, of The Eskimo Hunts in Miami.