All of the above are, of course, conspiracy theories. But the fact that they have surfaced this year — and all feature the name of Mr Soros — is not just a curiosity. It says something important and worrying about global politics.
In the 1990s, Mr Soros was in tune with the spirit of the age, as he used the billions he had made in finance to support the transition to democracy in post-communist Europe and elsewhere. But now the global political climate has changed and liberal ideas are in retreat. For a new generation of nationalists — from the US to Russia and Hungary — Mr Soros has become the perfect villain. He is an internationalist in an age of nationalism. He is a supporter of individual rights, not group rights. He is the 29th-richest man in the world, according to the Forbes rich list. And he is also Jewish, so is easily cast in the role of the shadowy and manipulative international financier, once reserved for the Rothschilds.
One of the nastier bits of anti-Soros propaganda this year explicitly linked him to the old slurs against the Rothschilds. When America First nationalists became worried that HR McMaster, national security adviser to President Donald Trump, was purging their allies in the White House, they set up a website called “McMaster leaks” which featured a cartoon of Mr McMaster being manipulated by puppetmasters labelled “Soros” and “Rothschilds”.
In 1989, one of the beneficiaries of a Soros scholarship to study at Oxford was a young Hungarian activist named Viktor Orban. Today, the same Mr Orban is prime minister of Hungary and demonises his one-time benefactor. The Hungarian leader has made denunciation of an alleged “Soros plan” to flood Hungary with Muslims central to his re-election campaign. There is no such plan. What is true is that Mr Soros is a generous backer of refugee charities and has also supported the EU’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees across the bloc, including in Hungary. That was excuse enough for Mr Orban to plaster the country with posters featuring a grinning Mr Soros, and urging: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”
The demonisation of Mr Soros in Hungary, where he was born, is not an isolated case. In the past year, he has been denounced by political leaders in Macedonia, Poland, Romania and Turkey, all of whom claim he is plotting against them.
The paranoid right in America also churns out anti-Soros material. As long ago as 2007, Mr Soros was denounced on Fox News as the “Dr Evil of the whole world of leftwing foundations”. The origins of Soros-hatred in the US may date back to his opposition to the Iraq war. His support of liberal causes in the US, as well as of international institutions such as the UN, has kept the far-right pot boiling.
There is clearly an echo-chamber element to the anti-Soros campaigns around the world, as far-right groups pick up on the same conspiracy theories. But some strongman leaders have more concrete reasons to fear Mr Soros’s Open Society Foundation, which funds civil society organisations that promote education, a free press, minority rights and anti-corruption initiatives. In 2015, Vladimir Putin’s government chucked the Open Society Foundation out of Russia since it was no longer willing to tolerate the latter’s support for organisations such as Memorial, which promoted research into the Soviet terror.
Mr Soros’s activities have even made him a target in Israel. The obvious anti-Semitism in many of the anti-Soros campaigns around the world evidently matters less to the Netanyahu government than Mr Soros’s support for Palestinian rights and other causes unpopular on the Israeli right.
There is also a personal element in prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-Soros ire. As an anti-corruption probe has got closer and closer to Israel’s first family, so they have lashed out against Mr Soros. Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, complained recently that the “Fund for the Destruction of Israel, funded by Soros and the European Union, is threatening me”. He even re-published a cartoon of Mr Soros dangling the world in front of a reptilian creature, the kind of image that his father would routinely denounce as anti-Semitic if it had been published by another source.
Conspiracy theorists have an explanation for everything. So the fact that the FT should publish a column defending Mr Soros will simply be taken as further evidence of his nefarious influence. For the record, I have had precisely two conversations with Mr Soros. On both occasions, we were on the same public panel at seminars organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank that he partially funds.
We have never had a private conversation and I certainly would not claim him as a friend. But I have no hesitation in applauding his philanthropy. The fact that it even needs to be defended says something sad about the times we are living in.