Given the viciousness of the racist tweet that cost Roseanne Barr her ABC sitcom, you may have missed another Twitter smear she pushed out early last week.
Repeating a myth popular with the alt-right (including the just-pardoned Dinesh D’Souza), Barr falsely accused billionaire Jewish philanthropist George Soros of having been a Nazi collaborator “who turned in his fellow Jews 2 be murdered in German concentration camps.” No surprise, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Barr’s hateful message.
Never mind that Soros was 13 years old when the Nazis entered Hungary in 1944 and was struggling to survive the Holocaust with his family. (Barr is so oblivious to facts that she sent her tweet to Chelsea Clinton, who she incorrectly claimed was married to Soros’ nephew.)
But Barr’s tweet reflects a deeper derangement. The 87-year-old Soros has become the whipping boy for illiberal nationalists from Washington to Moscow to Budapest. The autocrats of Russia and Eastern Europe charge him with everything from trying to overthrow their regimes to staging fake chemical attacks in Syria. Conspiratorial conservative websites endorsed by Trump — along with some GOP senators — paint him as a puppet master behind every political demonstration, including the kneeling of NFL players.
These cuckoo conspiracy theories are symptomatic of a shift in global values from the optimism of the 1990s, when America’s liberal democracy was universally admired, to the current era of fear and anger, when democracy is in retreat.
I first became familiar with Soros’ work on visits to Russia in the early 1990s. As a Holocaust survivor who had watched fascism then communism darken the world, the young Soros came of age enamored of democracy. At university in England, he was inspired by the work of Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, whose “The Open Society and Its Enemies” denounced dictatorial systems and espoused those that let differing ideas flourish.
Having made a fortune in finance and currency trading, Soros set up a network of Open Society organizations across Russia and Eastern and Central Europe after communism’s fall. He wanted to help these states transition to democracy.
Soros stipends kept Russian scientists, including nuclear experts, from fleeing (and possibly sharing their knowledge with bad guys). At a time when the Soviet system was collapsing, and salaries going unpaid, his funds enabled libraries across Russia to purchase literature that exposed them to the outside world.
Fast-forward over the decades: Open Society Foundations in Eastern Europe and Russia funded NGOs that worked on building democracy, training journalists, and supporting health care and human rights. In the United States, the liberal Soros funded issues such as criminal justice, confronting the drug problem, immigration issues and democratic governance.
But the world was changing, the glow of democracy was fading. In the Age of Putin, pluralist democracy is the enemy, independent NGOs were a thorn, and Open Society Institutes were shut down in 2015. Eastern Europe moved back toward autocracy.
And in Soros’ native Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, close to Putin, praised by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, admired by Trump himself, brags that he has established a new model: “illiberal democracy,” meaning an end to any real opposition. Never mind that as a youth he had taken a Soros scholarship to attend Oxford.
Orban made Soros the main enemy in recent elections, with a vicious, anti-Semitic campaign falsely denouncing the philanthropist as plotting to drown Hungary with Muslim refugees. State-controlled Russian TV echoed the charges.
Conveniently Jewish and a financier, Soros has become the poster boy blamed for evil global conspiracies meant to undermine Christian nationalists.
The attacks have even, amazingly, been echoed by an increasingly illiberal Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose eagerness to curb opposition NGOs apparently overcomes any unease at the anti-Semitism of other Soros attackers.
All this is bad enough abroad but obscene when the Soros-phobia migrates to the USA.
To get an idea of the vileness of alt-right slurs against Soros, consider the campaign last year to get national security adviser H.R. McMaster fired, by claiming he was a Soros puppet. Pro-Trump radio host Mike Cernovich featured an anti-Semitic cartoon showing Soros pulling the strings of a McMaster puppet, alongside a hand labeled “Rothschilds.” Could the message be clearer?
Yet the endless attacks on a convenient Jewish “enemy” by pro-Trumpers continue with almost no GOP pushback. In another tweet, Barr charged Soros with wanting to “overthrow” the United States. Last year, New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith and Utah Sen. Mike Lee accused Soros of trying to push “a progressive agenda” in Eastern Europe, a goal the George W. Bush administration supported.
The times are a changin’. A decade ago, Republicans embraced the idea of helping ex-communist countries go democratic, but now the White House and some GOP senators prefer Moscow’s outlook.
Thank goodness the conservative National Review had the guts to denounce Roseanne’s Nazi tweet as part of “an epidemic of dishonesty on the right.” But the ongoing attacks on Soros more accurately reflect where so many conservatives stand today.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.