His enemies paint him as all-powerful, but the billionaire philanthropist believes that his political legacy has never been in greater jeopardy.
By Michael Steinberger
On a clammy Tuesday morning in Paris at the end of May, George Soros, the world’s second-most-vilified New York billionaire (but worth many billions more than the other one), addressed the European Council on Foreign Relations, an organization he helped found a decade ago. Described by the woman who introduced him as a “European at heart,” the Hungarian-born Soros, who made his fortune running a hedge fund and is now a full-time philanthropist, political activist and freelance statesman, was there to share his thoughts on salvaging the European Union.
Wearing a dark suit, tieless and with the collar of his blue shirt outside the lapel of his jacket, Soros took the stage with the determined stride of an 87-year-old who still plays tennis a few times a week. But there were some concessions to age. He gave his speech sitting down and used a desk lamp to illuminate the text. (In fairness, the hotel conference room hosting the event was morosely dark.) He turned the pages with his right hand while keeping his left hand on his left knee, as if propping himself up. There were moments when he seemed on the verge of losing his place, although he never did.
In person, Soros is quite charming, with a wry sense of humor. But his writings — he has published 14 books — and speeches can be a little wooden, and this occasion was no exception. He barely acknowledged the audience, which included the president of Serbia and the prime minister of Albania, except to say, “I think this is the right place to discuss how to save Europe.” But apart from urging the European Union to direct more aid to Africa, which he said would ameliorate the refugee crisis that has led to so much of the recent political upheaval in Europe, his remarks were more descriptive than prescriptive. The European Union, he said, faced an “existential crisis.”
Briefly touching on Europe’s economic outlook, he said, “We may be heading for another major financial crisis.” Partly in response to his warning, the Dow fell nearly 400 points that day. Soros is generally considered the greatest speculator Wall Street has known, and though he stopped managing other people’s money years ago, the reaction was a real-time display of his continued ability to move markets. The attention given to that comment also underscored, in a subtle way, an enduring frustration of his life: His financial thoughts still tend to carry more weight than his political reflections.
Yet the political realm is where Soros has made his most audacious wager. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, he poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the former Soviet-bloc countries to promote civil society and liberal democracy. It was a one-man Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe, a private initiative without historical precedent. It was also a gamble that a part of the world that had mostly known tyranny would embrace ideas like government accountability and ethnic tolerance. In London in the 1950s, Soros was a student of the expatriated Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, who championed the notion of an “open society,” in which individual liberty, pluralism and free inquiry prevailed. Popper’s concept became Soros’s cause.
It is an embattled cause these days. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has reverted to autocracy, and Poland and Hungary are moving in the same direction. With the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, where Soros is a major donor to Democratic candidates and progressive groups, and the growing strength of right-wing populist parties in Western Europe, Soros’s vision of liberal democracy is under threat in its longtime strongholds. Nationalism and tribalism are resurgent, barriers are being raised and borders reinforced and Soros is confronting the possibility that the goal to which he has devoted most of his wealth and the last chapter of his life will end in failure. Not only that: He also finds himself in the unsettling position of being the designated villain of this anti-globalization backlash, his Judaism and career in finance rendering him a made-to-order phantasm for reactionaries worldwide. “I’m standing for principles whether I win or lose,” Soros told me this spring. But, he went on, “unfortunately, I’m losing too much in too many places right now.”
The night before his speech in Paris, I had dinner with Soros in his suite at the Bristol Hotel, where he usually stays — and one of the city’s most elegant addresses, conveniently located just up the street from the Elysées Palace (although on this trip Soros had no plans to see France’s president, Emanuel Macron, whom he knows and admires). An aide took me up to the suite and ushered me into the dining room, where Soros was already seated at the table with his wife, Tamiko (Soros has been married three times and has five children — though that is where the similarities to Donald Trump end). It was after 8:30, but he seemed eager for conversation. He spoke slowly, in a still-thick Hungarian accent, moving his cupped hand in a semicircle as if summoning his words. As we talked over a first course of tomato-and-avocado salad, a thunderstorm swept across Paris, rattling the windows. One especially violent thunderclap struck as we were discussing Russia. “That’s Putin,” another aide joked. In 2015, Putin expelled Soros’s philanthropic organization, the Open Society Foundations, from Russia, claiming it was a security threat, and Russian state media churn out a steady flow of anti-Soros content. (At a recent joint press conference with Trump in Helsinki, Putin spoke scornfully of Soros.)
Paris was the first stop for Soros on a monthlong spring trip to Europe. He normally would have visited Budapest, but not this time. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, a former Soros protégé, was re-elected in April after running a campaign in which he effectively made Soros his opponent. Orban accused Soros, who is an American citizen, of plotting to overwhelm Hungary with Muslim immigrants in order to undermine its Christian heritage. He attacked Soros during campaign rallies, and his government plastered the country with anti-Soros billboards. In the aftermath of the election, the O.S.F. announced that it was closing its Budapest office because of concerns for the safety of its employees. The fate of the Soros-founded Central European University, based in Budapest, was also in doubt.
Soros said he couldn’t visit Hungary under present circumstances: “It would be toxic,” he said. He told me that Orban’s campaign was “a big disappointment,” but quickly added, “I think I must be doing something right to look at who my enemies are.” Last autumn, he signaled that same sense of defiance when he announced that he was in the process of transferring the bulk of his remaining wealth, $18 billion in total at the time, to the O.S.F. That will potentially make it the second-largest philanthropic organization in the United States, in assets, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is already a sprawling entity, with some 1,800 employees in 35 countries, a global advisory board, eight regional boards and 17 issue-oriented boards. Its annual budget of around $1 billion finances projects in education, public health, independent media, immigration and criminal-justice reform and other areas. Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood are among its grantees.
Soros originally planned to close the O.S.F. in 2010. He didn’t want it to outlive him, because he feared it might then lose its dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit. But he changed his mind when he realized that, as he put it, “I had more money than I can realistically or usefully spend in my lifetime.” He also saw that, with liberal values and civil society fragile in so many places, the O.S.F.’s work was becoming ever more essential. “I found a mission, a niche, that I felt could be carried on,” he said as we finished dinner.
A few minutes later came an unexpected reminder of what he and the O.S.F. are up against. A Soros aide and I took the elevator back down together, and when we stepped into the Bristol’s lobby, we found ourselves in the middle of a reception line that stretched the length of the room. It had formed there to greet one of Africa’s longest-serving autocrats, Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of the Republic of Congo. The next day, a few hours after Soros spoke to the European Council on Foreign Relations, Roseanne Barr went on a Twitter rant that served as a vivid demonstration of what he is up against personally. Soros was maneuvering to bring about “the overthrow of us constitutional republic,” Barr tweeted. She also claimed that Soros, a Holocaust survivor, had actually been a Nazi. Among those who retweeted the Nazi gibe was Donald Trump Jr.
According to Soros, 1944 was the formative year of his life. The Nazis invaded Hungary and immediately began deporting Jews. To save his family, his father, Tivadar Soros, a lawyer, obtained false identities for George, who was then 13, and his older brother, Paul. One day, George was ordered to deliver summonses on behalf of the Jewish Council. Tivadar, recognizing that they were essentially deportation notices, instructed his son to tell the recipients not to heed them. Soon after, Tivadar arranged for Paul to move into a rented room and sent George to live with a Hungarian agricultural official, who passed him off as his Christian godson. The official’s job included taking inventory of a confiscated Jewish-owned property; he took George with him. These episodes have become the basis for the claim that George was a Nazi collaborator. In fact, though, there is no credible evidence that he collaborated with or was sympathetic to the Nazis. George, his brother and his parents all survived the war. Soros says that he came out of the experience with a strong defiant streak, a contempt for tribalism and a propensity to side with the oppressed.
In 1946, as Communists were rising to power in Hungary, Soros fled to England. He earned a degree from the London School of Economics, where Karl Popper was a professor. In 1945, Popper published a political treatise, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” a fierce assault on totalitarianism, in both its fascist and Marxist forms, and a ringing defense of liberal democracy. Soros left Popper’s classroom with not only the idea that would later animate his philanthropy but also the desire to live a life of the mind. He had to make money first, though. When he moved to New York in 1956 to take a job on Wall Street, his goal, he told me, was to sock away $100,000 in five years, which would allow him to quit finance and turn to scholarly pursuits. But instead, he quipped during our dinner, “I overperformed.”
In 1969, Soros formed what would become the Quantum Fund. It was one of a new breed of investment vehicles known as hedge funds, which catered to institutional investors and wealthy individuals and which used leverage — borrowed money — to make huge bets on stocks, bonds, currencies and commodities. Quantum was wildly successful from its start, delivering 40 percent annual returns. Soros would later attribute his knack for playing the markets to what he called his “theory of reflexivity” — basically, the idea that people’s biases and perceptions can move prices in directions that don’t accord with the underlying reality. Soros claimed his strength as an investor was in recognizing and acting on what he referred to as “far from equilibrium” moments. (His oldest son, Robert, once claimed the “reflexivity” explanation was bunk; he said the tip-off for his father that the market was nearing a major move was when his bad back flared up.)
By the late 1970s, Soros had become a very wealthy man. Now he had the means to make himself an agent of history. He was frank about his ambition, though also self-deprecating. As he wrote in his 1991 book, “Underwriting Democracy”: “I was a confirmed egoist but I considered the pursuit of self-interest as too narrow a base for my rather inflated self. If truth be known, I carried some rather potent messianic fantasies with me from childhood which I felt I had to control, otherwise they might get me into trouble. But when I had made my way in the world I wanted to indulge my fantasies to the extent that I could afford.”
He decided that his goal would be opening closed societies. He created a philanthropic organization, then called the Open Society Fund, in 1979 and began sponsoring college scholarships for black South African students. But he soon turned his attention to Eastern Europe, where he started financing dissident groups. He funneled money to the Solidarity strikers in Poland in 1981 and to Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. In one especially ingenious move, he sent hundreds of Xerox copiers to Hungary to make it easier for underground publications to disseminate their newsletters. In the late 1980s, he provided dozens of Eastern European students with scholarships to study in the West, with the aim of fostering a generation of liberal democratic leaders. One of those students was Viktor Orban, who studied civil society at Oxford. From his Manhattan trading desk, Soros became a strange sort of expat anticommunist revolutionary.
In the meantime, Quantum grew into a multibillion-dollar colossus. Soros made his most famous trade in 1992, when he bet against the British pound. The currency was vulnerable because it had been pegged at what seemed an unsustainably high rate against the German mark; with Britain in recession, Soros reasoned, the British government would ultimately choose to see the pound devalued rather than maintain the high interest rates needed to defend it from speculative investors. Soros’s terse command to his head trader, Stanley Druckenmiller, was to “go for the jugular.” Druckenmiller did, and on Wednesday, Sept. 16 — Black Wednesday, as it came to be known — the Bank of England stopped trying to prop up the pound’s value. It promptly sank against the mark, falling out of Europe’s Exchange Rate Mechanism and dealing a setback to the push for greater European integration. The sterling crisis turned hedge funds into the glamorous rogues of finance and demonstrated the punitive power that they could wield against policymakers in a world of free-flowing capital. The trade made $1.5 billion for Quantum, and Soros, whom the British tabloids dubbed “the man who broke the Bank of England,” became a household name.
By then, the Soviet empire had collapsed, and Soros was devoting huge sums of his own money to try to smooth its transition from Communist rule. For example, he donated $100 million to support Russian scientists and keep them from selling their services to countries hostile to the West; he spent $250 million on a program to revise Russian textbooks and train teachers to promote critical thinking. While the era was one of Western triumphalism, when it was widely assumed that Russia and other newly freed countries would inevitably embrace liberal democracy — a view most famously expressed in Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay, “The End of History” — Soros did not share that certitude. This part of the world had little tradition of civil society and liberal democracy, and in his view these needed to be nurtured if the region was to avoid backsliding into autocracy. “I generally have a bias to see the darkest potential,” he told me. “It is something that I have practiced in the financial markets to very good effect, and I have transferred it to politics.”
During the 1990s, Soros toggled between his day job and his philanthropy, and it was not always easy to disentangle his dual roles. For a time, Quantum and O.S.F. were run out of the same offices. In December 1992, three months after his bet against the British pound, Soros announced a $50 million donation to build a water-treatment facility in war-ravaged Sarajevo, and it was hard not to see that money as having been sucked straight from the British treasury. Soros once described his bifurcated existence rather graphically, writing that he “felt like a giant digestive tract, taking in money at one end and pushing it out at the other.”
If that was the case, indigestion was inevitable, and it came in 1997, when Quantum was at the center of a speculative attack on the Thai baht. The episode was a nearly identical reprise of what happened to the British pound. (Quantum made roughly $750 million this time.) There was one critical difference, however: While Britain was a major industrialized country that ultimately had little trouble absorbing the blow to its currency, Thailand was an emerging economy for which the consequences were devastating. Economic output plunged, banks and businesses folded and huge numbers of people were thrown out of work. The baht crisis rippled into other Asian economies. Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, called Soros and other speculators “unscrupulous profiteers” whose immoral work served no social value. Soros publicly rejected the criticism, but when investors took aim at the Indonesian rupiah in the fall of 1997, Quantum was not among them. Nor did it join other hedge funds when they targeted the Russian ruble the following year. Having already invested hundreds of millions of dollars trying to stabilize Russia, Soros would have been undercutting his own work by betting against the Russian currency. He ended up taking a $400 million loss.
“That was where the crossroads between the philanthropist and the investor became difficult,” says Rob Johnson, a longtime Soros associate who worked as a portfolio manager at Quantum in the 1990s. But by then, according to Johnson, the only reason that Soros was still running a hedge fund was to generate more money for his causes.
In a speech to students and faculty at Moldova University in 1994, Soros described in strikingly personal terms why he became a political philanthropist. His objective, he said, was to make Hungary “a country from which I wouldn’t want to emigrate.” To that end, he showered Hungary with money and resources in the years after the Berlin Wall fell. In the early 1990s, the O.S.F. gave $5 million to a program that offered free breakfasts to Hungarian schoolchildren. It spent millions to modernize Hungary’s health care system. In all, Soros has funded around $400 million worth of projects in Hungary since 1989 — and that figure doesn’t include the initial $250 million that he gave to endow Central European University, which opened in Prague in 1991, moved to Budapest two years later and has since graduated more than 14,000 students drawn from across Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soros also cultivated a number of young activists he believed could advance his dream of remaking Hungary as a place he would never again feel compelled to leave. Among them was Viktor Orban, a bright, charismatic student who was ardently pro-democracy, or so it seemed. In addition to providing Orban with a scholarship at Oxford, Soros donated money to Fidesz (the Alliance of Young Democrats), a student organization that Orban helped found and that evolved into his political party.
But during the 1990s, Orban drifted to the right. Elected prime minister in 1998, he governed as a mainstream conservative, emphasizing patriotism and traditional values. Outwardly, he remained pro-Western. Under his leadership, Hungary entered NATO, and he also laid the groundwork for its admission to the European Union. But a shock defeat in the 2002 election seemed to radicalize Orban. When he reclaimed the prime minister’s office in 2009, he began ruthlessly consolidating power. He packed the courts with Fidesz loyalists, and various independent media were bought out by Orban supporters. At the same time, he turned away from the West and drew close to Vladimir Putin. Orban was re-elected in 2014. The following year, the European refugee crisis hit. Tens of thousands of refugees passed through the Balkans and arrived on Hungary’s border. Orban’s government erected a 109-mile fence in order to keep them out, and it later refused to comply with a European Union quota plan that would have required it to take in asylum-seekers.
Groups that received financial support from the O.S.F. were providing assistance to the refugees massed along Hungary’s border, and this became a pretext for Orban’s war on Soros. The Hungarian Parliament enacted legislation requiring NGOs to register with the government and disclose foreign sources of income above a certain threshold; it passed a bill that would have stripped Central European University of the right to award diplomas in Hungary. Orban’s government introduced what it called the “Stop Soros” bill making it a crime to assist illegal immigrants. (Parliament passed the bill last month.)
In one campaign rally in Budapest, Orban referred to Soros as “Uncle George,” telling tens of thousands of supporters that “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 world.” Along with the fiery speeches, there were the billboards, which featured a picture of a smiling Soros and the message, “Let’s not let George Soros have the last laugh.” The laughing Jew had been a trope of Nazi propaganda, but Orban denied that the billboards were anti-Semitic.
Orban’s coalition won 49 percent of the vote, enough to give it a supermajority in Parliament. But the anti-Soros campaign didn’t end with the election. Days after the vote, a magazine owned by a pro-Orban businesswoman published the names of more than 200 people in Hungary that it claimed were Soros “mercenaries.” The list included representatives of human rights groups, anticorruption watchdogs and Central European University faculty members and administrators. In mid-May, the O.S.F. announced that it was closing its Budapest office, which was responsible for almost half its international grants. Patrick Gaspard, the O.S.F.’s president, says that the language and imagery Orban used to go after Soros was “nothing short of violent” and that the Hungarian prime minister’s threat to turn the country’s intelligence services on the O.S.F. made it impossible to remain in Budapest. “I have the habit of taking autocrats at their word,” Gaspard says. “We have to protect the security of our staff and of our data.” The office is relocating to Berlin.
In recent years, governments throughout Eastern Europe have attacked Soros. But why Orban, personally popular and facing hopelessly divided opponents, chose to make Soros-bashing the centerpiece of his campaign puzzled many observers. Orban “is extremely successful,” Michael Ignatieff, the president of Central European University and the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, told me in London in April. “He’s a much better politician than any of his opposition. He has intelligence and charm. He’s funny and reads a room well. What’s crazy is that he feels he needs to delegitimize Soros in order to win an election.” Some observers offered a psychological explanation: Noting that Orban had had a turbulent relationship with his own father and a tendency to chafe under authority, they suggested that bludgeoning Soros was a form of patricide, a way of slaying his political godfather. But Thomas Carothers, a senior vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that Soros was simply a useful cudgel for Orban. Civic groups were the last source of potential opposition, he says, and because some of them were backed by the O.S.F., going after Soros was a way to undermine their credibility. “Strongman leaders want to de-universalize human rights and civic liberties,” says Carothers, who has served on various O.S.F. advisory boards. “It is much harder for Orban to say that he rejects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is much easier to say, ‘I push back against this intrusive man sitting in New York.’ Soros is a very convenient bogeyman.”
Given that Orban ran and won on a xenophobic platform, it seems fair to wonder if Soros’s work in Hungary — and in much of Eastern Europe — was doomed from the start. With Putinism and Orbanism on the rise and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaching, there is renewed debate about the import of the events of 1989 and whether Russians, Poles and Hungarians really intended to embrace the full menu of Western liberal values. Francis Fukuyama is among those who have doubts today. “There’s now a lot of evidence that a lot of that turn toward liberal democracy in the early days, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, really was driven by a kind of educated, very pro-Western elite,” he told me recently. But less-educated people who lived outside large urban areas “didn’t really buy into liberalism, this idea that you could actually have a multiracial, multiethnic society where all these traditional communal values would have to give way to gay marriage and immigrants and all this stuff. That they definitely did not buy into.”
But Fukuyama went on to say that it takes events and skillful manipulators to rouse the forces of intolerance. In Hungary, the global financial crisis and the refugee crisis were the fuses, and Orban proved very adept at providing the spark. Leonard Benardo, the vice president of the O.S.F., made a similar observation. He said resentment of the European Union, which came to be seen as an “emasculating force of Hungarian identity,” as he put it, coupled with economic anxiety, left Hungarians receptive to Orban’s appeal. “Hungarians are not irredeemably racist,” Benardo said. “Ethnic entrepreneurs like Orban play upon the darkest fears of people to produce political support and an us-versus-them mentality.”
In contrast to Benardo, my grandfather was not a social scientist. But like Soros, he was a Hungarian-born Jew who ended up in the United States, and he believed that anti-Semitism was a habit of mind that Hungarians would never kick. He admired Soros, but thought he was wasting his money in Hungary. When I told Soros about my grandfather, he smiled and shook his head knowingly. He said that his brother, a shipping magnate, had felt the same way. Soros did not.
“I don’t blame the Hungarian people at all,” he said. “In fact, I admire them for their willingness to stand up to oppression and to fight for their freedom.” He added: “We have to distinguish between the people and the government.”
He then told me a story from 1944, about a Nazi officer his father met in a cafe. During the course of the conversation, the officer quietly admitted to misgivings about the orders he was obliged to carry out. His father, a Jew in hiding and virulently opposed to the Nazis, tried to comfort the officer, telling him that it was a difficult situation. Throughout his life, the elder Soros shared this story to make the point that circumstances matter and that how people act isn’t necessarily how they feel, a lesson that his son was now applying to Orban’s Hungary. I asked him if he expected to visit Hungary again in his lifetime. “I hope so,” he said, but without much conviction.
Two weeks later, President Trump called Orban to congratulate him on his re-election.
Soros became a major political donor in the United States during George W. Bush’s presidency. Angered by what he saw as an effort by the Bush administration to use the war on terror to stoke fear and stifle dissent, he began donating vast sums to Democratic candidates and progressive causes. He helped fund the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, as well as MoveOn.org, and spent more than $20 million backing John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid to deny Bush a second term. In addition to being a generous donor, he was an outspoken one. He accused the Bush administration of employing Nazi propaganda techniques, and later said that the United States would need to undergo “a certain de-Nazification process” after Bush left office.
Soros was an early backer of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. In Paris, Soros told me that Obama was “actually my greatest disappointment.” Prompted by an aide, he immediately qualified himself, saying that he hadn’t been disappointed by Obama’s presidency but felt let down on a professional level. While he had no desire for a formal role in the administration, he had hoped that Obama would seek his counsel, especially on financial and economic matters. Instead, he was frozen out.
Soros with his mentor, the philosopher Karl Popper, in 1990.CreditPhotograph from George Soros
After Obama was elected, “he closed the door on me,” Soros said. “He made one phone call thanking me for my support, which was meant to last for five minutes, and I engaged him, and he had to spend another three minutes with me, so I dragged it out to eight minutes.” He suggested that he had fallen victim to an Obama personality trait. “He was someone who was known from the time when he was competing for the editorship of The Harvard Law Review to take his supporters for granted and to woo his opponents,” Soros said.
During the 2016 election cycle, Soros contributed more than $25 million to Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates and causes. While he had foreseen the possibility of a Trump-like figure emerging (“The American public has proven remarkably susceptible to the manipulation of truth, which increasingly dominates the country’s political discourse,” he wrote in The Guardian in 2007), he was as surprised as everyone else that the Trump-like figure turned out to be Donald Trump. Soros told me that he had known Trump casually and had even socialized with him (about 30 years ago, a friend of Soros’s dated one of Trump’s senior people, and they all went out for dinner a few times). “I had no idea he had any political ambition,” Soros said. Trump had tried to coax him into becoming the lead tenant in one of his commercial buildings, he said. “I told him I couldn’t afford it,” Soros recalled with a chuckle.
He said that he had been “very afraid” that Trump would “blow up the world rather than suffer a setback to his narcissism” but was pleased that the president’s ego had instead led him to reach out to North Korea. “I think the danger of nuclear war has been greatly reduced, and that’s a big relief.” In his annual state-of-the-world speech in Davos this year, Soros said Trump “would like to establish a mafia state, but he can’t, because the Constitution, other institutions and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it.” He also characterized Trump as a “purely temporary phenomenon that will disappear in 2020, or even sooner,” and predicted a Democratic landslide in the 2018 midterm elections. Five months on, he was sticking by those predictions. “For every Trump follower who follows Trump through thick and thin, there is more than one Trump enemy who will be more intent, more determined,” Soros told me. He is doing his part to shorten the Trump era: In advance of the midterm elections, Soros has so far contributed at least $15 million to support Democratic candidates and causes.
Asked if he would support Bernie Sanders if the Vermont senator won the Democratic nomination in 2020, Soros said it was too soon to say. He expressed displeasure with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another possible candidate, over her role in ousting Al Franken from Congress: “She was using #MeToo to promote herself.” He said his main goal as a political activist was to see a return to bipartisanship, a surprising claim in light of his lavish support for the Democrats. It was the extremism of the Republican Party that had prompted him to become a major Democratic donor, he said; he wanted the Republican Party to reform itself into a more moderate party. He said he was not especially partisan himself: “I don’t particularly want to be a Democrat.” He spoke of his respect for John McCain. He even said he would be inclined to give financial support to moderate Republicans like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, although he quickly walked back that comment: “I shouldn’t say that. That would hurt them.” And while the Republicans had made bipartisanship impossible, he didn’t want to see the Democrats become more ideologically rigid and confrontational.
If Soros views his relationship with the Democratic Party as mostly transactional, for some Democrats the feeling appears to be mutual. While his money is welcome and needed, there seems to be a certain ambivalence about Soros within Democratic circles. It is partly because of his outspokenness. As Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime Democratic strategist, puts it, “The best donors are silent donors; not talking is good.” A bigger issue is that the Democratic Party remains committed to campaign-finance reform and abhors the effect that the Citizens United decision has had on American politics. That 2010 Supreme Court ruling gave billionaires like Soros the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. Kamarck says that in the post-Citizens United world, Democrats “can’t unilaterally disarm” and spurn donations from plutocrats like Soros, but they are conflicted about billionaire donors in a way that the Republicans are not.
Although Soros is squarely on the left on many issues — he supports a single-payer health care system and is a longtime advocate of criminal-justice reform — some on the left have long been dubious of him. In the 1990s, he was portrayed by the far left as an agent of American imperialism, helping to foist the so-called neoliberal agenda (mass privatization, for example) on Eastern Europe. For some critics, Soros’s Wall Street background has always been a mark against him. There is also discomfort with his philanthropy — not its goals, certainly, but what it is seen to represent. Soros is at the vanguard of what has come to be known as “philanthrocapitalism,” essentially large-scale social investing by billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Soros. (Last year Forbes magazine ranked Soros the 20th-richest American.) To those who object, this represents the privatization of social policy and, through the substantial tax benefits that charitable donations receive, it deprives the public sector of money that could be used to promote social welfare.
When I asked Soros to describe himself ideologically, he laughed. “My ideology is nonideological,” he said. “I’m in the club of nonclubs.” When I suggested that “center-left” might characterize his views, he demurred; he said it wasn’t clear where he stood now because the left had moved further left, a development that did not please him. “I’m opposed to the extreme left,” he said. “It should stop trying to keep up with the extremists on the right.”
One morning in Paris, I had coffee with Alex Soros, who is 32 and the second-youngest of George’s five children. Bespectacled, wiry and careful with his words, he had recently earned a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, and was now running his own philanthropy while also working with the O.S.F. He was a little groggy, having been up late the night before writing an op-ed for The Daily News rebutting Roseanne Barr’s Nazi tweet. (His father’s lawyers also filed a cease-and-desist order against Barr; she issued an apology two weeks later.) When the caffeine finally kicked in, Alex told me that for many years, his father had not been eager to advertise his Judaism because “this was something he was almost killed for.” But he had always “identified firstly as a Jew,” and his philanthropy was ultimately an expression of his Jewish identity, in that he felt a solidarity with other minority groups and also because he recognized that a Jew could only truly be safe in a world in which all minorities were protected. Explaining his father’s motives, he said, “The reason you fight for an open society is because that’s the only society that you can live in, as a Jew — unless you become a nationalist and only fight for your own rights in your own state.”
But Soros’s Jewish identity, coupled with his status as a Wall Street billionaire, gave those disinclined to support his agenda an easy means to foment suspicion and resentment, and from the moment that he became involved in Eastern Europe, he was confronted with anti-Semitism. The dog-whistling has not abated with time; some would argue that anti-Semitism directed at Soros has become, at least under Orban, a state-sponsored contagion. But it has also lately taken some bizarre twists. Last year, a son of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, posted an anti-Semitic cartoon of Soros on his Facebook page. (Netanyahu has frequently disparaged Soros because of his financial support for groups critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.) And, of course, Soros is also routinely accused of having been a Nazi.
Anti-Soros sentiment is a more recent phenomenon in the United States. Soros became a focal point of right-wing vitriol when he started contributing to the Democrats. In an appearance on Fox News in 2004, Dennis Hastert, who was at the time the speaker of the House, suggested that Soros was involved with drug cartels, telling Chris Wallace that “I don’t know where George Soros gets his money. I don’t know where — if it comes overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from.” The effort to demonize Soros has been unrelenting and quite successful. In suggesting that Soros was plotting a coup against the American government, Roseanne Barr was repeating a claim made by, among others, Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had posted a meme on her Facebook page suggesting that Soros was conspiring to topple President Trump and “our constitutional republic.”
Soros is regularly portrayed as the deus ex machina of American politics, a vast left-wing conspiracy unto himself. His wily hand — and wallet — have been blamed for the national-anthem protests in the N.F.L.; the unrest in Ferguson, Mo.; and the violence in Charlottesville. On Twitter, Soros haters trace virtually every national trauma, as well as every setback for conservatives, to him, or anything with the flimsiest connection to him. This stuff isn’t confined to the digital fringes either. The claim about Charlottesville, for instance, was leveled by Paul Gosar, a Republican member of Congress. After news broke of a sex scandal involving the former governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, that state’s Republican Party issued a statement claiming that he had fallen victim to a “political hit job” orchestrated by Soros.
At this point, it is fair to say that “Soros” has eclipsed even “Hillary” as a trigger for a certain large subset of Republicans and conservatives. In April, conservative media outlets reported that Kimba Wood, the judge presiding over the case of President Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, had officiated at Soros’s third wedding, in 2013. None of them attempted to explain why this was a problem; it was apparently self-evident. In 2014, Mark Malloch-Brown, a former United Nations deputy secretary general and a longtime Soros protégé, became head of a company called Smartmatic, which specializes in electronic voting technology. Soros obsessives eventually seized on this as proof that he was now intent on manipulating election outcomes. In response, the company felt obliged to post a disclaimer on its website stating that Soros had no stake in Smartmatic and that its technology was not used during the 2016 United States presidential election. When I spoke with Malloch-Brown, he told me that this was the price of being associated in any way with Soros. “It’s a badge I wear with honor,” he said, “but it attaches to everything I do.”
Much of what is said about Soros on Facebook, Twitter and in right-wing media outlets is not overtly anti-Semitic, and it is possible that some of the people pushing these views are not even aware that he is Jewish. But the echoes are there. Glenn Beck used his show on Fox to peddle wild conspiracy theories about Soros. In 2010, he aired a multipart special called “George Soros: The Puppet Master,” which was widely condemned for its anti-Semitic overtones, beginning with its title (the Jew as puppet master, pulling the strings of humanity, is another age-old anti-Semitic trope). In recent years, the so-called alt-right has become a key driver of Soros paranoia. Breitbart portrays him as an arch-“globalist” who backs unrestricted immigration and a border-free world. (Neither claim is true.) Soros was one of the prominent Jews featured in the last ad of Trump’s 2016 campaign, which many regarded as anti-Semitic. Steve Bannon, formerly the head of Breitbart, led Trump’s campaign at the time. On a trip to Europe in March, Bannon lauded Viktor Orban as a “hero” and “the most significant guy on the scene today.”
Although the broadsides at Soros are often highly suggestive, the people behind them are usually careful to maintain a degree of deniability when it comes to the question of anti-Semitism. But not always. On his radio show last year, Alex Jones, who runs the conspiracy website Infowars, told listeners, “there is undoubtedly a Jewish mafia” and that it was headed by Soros. Offering the same twist that would later appear in Roseanne Barr’s tweet, Jones said that “one of the biggest enemies of Jews was the Jewish mafia” and that Soros was “out to get Jews.”
Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the E.U. was a personal blow to Soros, an Anglophile but also a staunch supporter of European integration. Afterward, he donated more than $500,000 to a group called Best for Britain, led by Malloch-Brown, that plans to push for a second referendum to undo Brexit. In a tart response, Norman Lamont, who was chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1992 pound-devaluation crisis and, as such, the person on the losing end of Soros’s most celebrated trade, told a reporter, “George Soros is a brilliant financier, but he should stick to finance and stay out of British politics.”
In April, I met with Lamont. Now a member of the House of Lords and an ardent Brexit supporter, he insisted that he bore no ill will toward Soros because of Black Wednesday. But he regarded Brexit as a domestic political matter in which foreign money should play no part. That Soros had a home and office in London was irrelevant. “He can’t vote here,” Lamont said. In his view, Soros’s effort to get a do-over vote was undermining British democracy. “I think there would be incredible disillusionment with the political process if this vote was annulled,” he said.
During my dinner with Soros, I pointed out that some political observers drew a straight line from Black Wednesday to Brexit, in that the 1992 crisis strengthened the position of the Euroskeptics in Britain’s Conservative Party, the faction that ultimately pushed for and prevailed on the vote to leave the European Union. I asked Soros what he would say to a Brexit supporter puzzled by his seemingly contradictory roles in Black Wednesday and Brexit. His reply suggested he thought the answer was obvious. “This is the difference between my engagement in the markets, where my only interest is to get it right and make money, and my political engagement, where I stand for what I really believe in,” he said.
It is a comment that gets to the heart of the Soros conundrum. Even if you concede that policymakers are ultimately to blame for the income inequality that has fueled so much of the current backlash against globalization, the financial sector has had a major role in worsening it, and hedge-fund titans like Soros are powerful symbols of that inequality. And while Soros has written very candidly and persuasively about the pitfalls of casino capitalism — most notably in a 1997 Atlantic essay, subsequently expanded into a book called “The Crisis of Global Capitalism,” in which he acknowledged the destabilizing effect of financial markets — that doesn’t make him any less of a symbol. When pressed, Soros has said that if he hadn’t gone after the British pound or the Thai baht, someone else would have. That is unquestionably true (and in fact, Quantum was not the only hedge fund targeting those currencies). But that is not a particularly satisfying answer, and certainly not after the Great Recession, in which investment banks and hedge funds played such a destructive role. The industry that made him a billionaire contributed significantly to the circumstances that now imperil what Soros the philanthropist has tried to achieve.
On the other hand, if Soros’s riches had gone to someone else, would that person have put the money to the same use? It might have gone to a noble cause, but almost certainly not to something as ambitious and quixotic — or as dangerous — as the promotion of liberal values and democracy. (As Putin and Orban have shown, independent civil society is inevitably regarded as oppositional by governments that don’t want their powers checked.) Most plutocrats measure progress in numbers, but the kind of work that Soros, through the O.S.F., has done generally defies quantification. And as Leonard Benardo, the vice president of the O.S.F., noted when we spoke a few months ago, that work can be unpopular in the countries where it is done.
Soros’s efforts on behalf of one group in particular, the Roma, seem especially germane right now. In June, the new Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League party, commissioned a census of the country’s Roma. As an “answer to the Roma question,” as he menacingly phrased it, Salvini vowed to expel all non-Italian Roma and added, “Unfortunately, we will have to keep the Italian Roma.” Even in the age of Trump, his words were shocking, but he has refused to disavow them or back down. Improving the status of Europe’s estimated 10 to 12 million Roma has been a major priority for Soros and the O.S.F. since the early 1990s. The organization has contributed more than $300 million to projects combating discrimination against the Roma and providing them with greater education, employment and civic opportunities. It is a struggle because anti-Roma sentiment remains a potent force, a reality underscored by Salvini’s actions and statements. Given the political currents in Europe, this is another battle that Soros may well be losing. Salvini’s popularity has soared.
But it is also a clarifying battle. Setting aside all of the complications that come with being George Soros, would you rather live in the world that he has tried to create, or in the world that Salvini and Orban (and, for that matter, Trump) seem to be pushing us toward? In the aftermath of the Great Recession, it can certainly be argued that how Soros earned his money, and the fact that he accumulated such wealth, ought to carry more moral opprobrium in 2018 than maybe it did in 2008. But there is also a case to be made that in the present moment, with its echoes of the 1930s, how he amassed his fortune matters a lot less than what he has chosen to do with it.
There have been mistakes; by his own admission, Soros erred in championing Mikheil Saakashvili, the mercurial former president of Georgia, and also became too directly involved in the country’s politics in the early 2000s. He clearly misjudged Orban. But as Victoria Nuland, a former American diplomat who worked for both Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton, put it when I spoke to her recently, “George is a freedom fighter.”
On the morning of July 5, I visited Soros at his home in the Hamptons. He had returned from Europe the week before and was spending the rest of the summer at El Mirador, as his Mediterranean-style villa is known. For years, Soros has used the 10-bedroom, 15,000-square-foot complex as a salon of sorts, entertaining a revolving cast of writers, academics and political activists. Back in the day, Soros could often be found playing chess outside with dissidents from Eastern Europe.
A household employee showed me to a table in the dining room and offered me some ginger tea: “a specialty of the house.” A few minutes later, Soros walked in. He was dressed in a white linen shirt, dark trousers and sandals. He hadn’t been on the tennis court that morning; he was busy with phone calls instead.
In the five weeks since I had seen Soros in Paris, the Trump administration had slapped new trade sanctions on China and imposed tariffs on goods from Canada and the European Union. I asked why the markets and the broader economy were holding up so well in the face of a possible global trade war, the breakdown of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the political turmoil in Washington. Soros said these developments would eventually drag down the market, but he couldn’t say when. “I’ve lost my capacity to anticipate the markets,” he said, adding with a smile, “I’m an amateur now.” It was like hearing Roger Federer saying he had lost his touch around the net. Soros claimed that because the financial world was no longer his main focus, he was unable to time the markets the way that he used to. Politics now commanded his attention.
Soros was in a reflective mood. He said democracy was in trouble because in many countries it had become sclerotic, insufficiently responsive to the public’s needs. “It’s losing out,” he said. Illiberal democracy, of the sort that Orban had fashioned in Hungary, was proving to be “more effective,” for the time being at least. The new-age autocrats had shown themselves to be particularly cunning in going after civil society as a means of consolidating their power. “It’s a less abrasive way of exercising control than actually killing people who disagree with you,” he said.
It had become clear to him that his mentor and inspiration, Karl Popper, had been wrong in one critical respect. In a democratic society, politics wasn’t ultimately a quest to arrive at the truth; it was about gaining and holding power and manipulating public sentiment in order to do that. “He was a philosopher of science, and science is a search for reality,” Soros said. “He did not understand politics. In politics, you are spinning the truth, not discovering it.” I asked what Popper, who died in 1994, had thought of his political philanthropy. “He was very supportive, which means he didn’t take me seriously,” Soros said, laughing. “I don’t think Popper would be so happy with my current position, because I’m critical of him.”
Soros acknowledged that he had said things in the past that he now regretted — not necessarily the sentiments, but the way he had expressed them. Referring to the Nazi comments that he made during the Bush years, he said, “That was probably a mistake.” He told me that he was now choosing his words more cautiously, eschewing comparisons to the Third Reich and the use of the word “fascism” to describe political conditions in the United States and Europe.
In Paris, Alex Soros had told me that his father, while an excellent parent, had been emotionally distant. It was, he said, a defense mechanism born of his wartime experience: “To be emotional, to give off emotion, could be a sign of vulnerability.” But he said his father had started to open up in recent years.
As my conversation with Soros in Southampton drew to a close, I thought I picked up a little vulnerability. He was talking about his wealth and the opportunities it had given him. “For me, money represents freedom and not power,” he said. For a long time, money had given him the freedom to do and say what he pleased, and also the freedom not to care what other people said and thought about him. But he conceded that he had started to care. “I have become a bit more concerned about my image, because it is disturbing to have those lies out there,” he said, citing Roseanne Barr’s tweet as an example. He also admitted that being the anointed villain for so many people around the world was unpleasant. “I’m not happy to have that many enemies,” he said. “I wish I had more friends.”