Billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros has become the target of Donald Trump supporters, who have begun organizing protests against the prominent Democratic donor whom they see as contributing to civil unrest in the wake of the 2016 elections.
The Hungarian-born investor, a Jew who survived the Nazi occupation during World War II and who has committed about $12 billion of his fortune to human rights work around the world, has long been a lightning rod for conservatives for his support of progressive causes.
That criticism reached a fever pitch online since the presidential election as Trump voters and conspiracy theorists see Soros' hand — and wallet — in the protests that raged across the country in the days following the election. It's a claim of financial support Soros' Open Society Foundations disavows.
"At the end of the day, it seems like he's sending groups to create chaos and disorder for no reason," said Rochelle Winther of Los Angeles, who is circulating information about him on social media, concerned that Soros is promoting hate through protests. "I don't see how that helps anybody."
Soros has been lampooned on social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. He become the focus of organized campaigns in less visible corners of the Internet, where members of the Internet bulletin board 8chan discussed a campaign to expose "all heads of the George Soros Hydra."
Members of one Reddit subgroup devoted to jailing Soros are planning protests against Soros on Nov. 26, with demonstrations in front of the Manhattan offices of Soros Fund Management and the New York City and Baltimore offices of his New York-based philanthropic group, the Open Society Foundations.
The Open Society Foundations says the notion that Soros is paying anti-Trump protesters is fiction, but says — with so many protests organized by so many groups — it's possible some groups the philanthropy supports may have been involved in the protests.
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"There have been many false reports about George Soros and the Open Society Foundations funding the protests that have erupted since the U.S. presidential elections. There is no truth to these reports," Foundations President Chris Stone said. "The only initiative we are planning to fund related to the elections is to respond to hate crimes and speech."
The Open Society Foundations this week pledged $10 million to fight hate crimes. The organization says it spends about $500 million annually supporting groups that promote human rights, democracy and justice, including grants to document stop-and-frisk practices of the Newark Police Department and to strengthen global advocacy for HIV treatment.
One grant recipient, the non-profit investigative news organization ProPublica, partnered with USA TODAY on election night coverage. Gannett board member Stephen Coll, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, chairs the Open Society U.S. Programs board.
Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin describes Soros as occupying the center of gravity for the progressive funding universe for years. Reports that cast the billionaire in the vanguard of rich liberals who've pledged to fight the Trump administration's agenda from Day One may make him a renewed target, she says.
"Clearly he's going to be back in a position of leading the liberal opposition — and they've made their intentions known," Malkin said. "They want to be the biggest thorn in the side of the Trump administration. Probably that's where this is coming from."
This isn't the first time Soros has been painted as a villain. The financier became known as the "man who broke the Bank of England" for his high-stakes bet in 1992 that the British pound would be devalued (he netted a profit of around $1 billion through his currency speculation).
Soros landed on the Republican radar during the 2004 presidential election cycle, when he emerged as a counterweight to the GOP's billionaire benefactors, the Koch brothers. He spent nearly $24 million in political contributions to Democratic groups in an effort to defeat George W. Bush, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Since then, Soros has emerged as the bogey man for the political right.
Conservative television host Glenn Beck once described him in a series of hour–long commentaries in 2010 as a shadowy political "puppet master" who manipulates unions, the Democratic Party and the Obama White House. Beck suggested he was somehow complicit in the Holocaust.
Nationally syndicated radio talk show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has called the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a hoax, this week labeled Soros as "fundamentally evil" and screened a clip of a 1998 60 Minutes interview that he described as a "whitewash" of his role as a Nazi collaborator, a role debunked by Soros biographer Michael Kaufman.
"George Soros has spent his life and his fortune promoting justice and human rights around the world," Soros' spokesman Michael Vachon said. "The alt right has manufactured conspiracy theories and delusional narratives to spread their false propaganda."
Soros became the focus of renewed attention, and in some quarters, outrage, within days of Trump's election. The conservative news site Breitbart started the ball rolling when it drew attention to a press release from MoveOn.org that urged Americans to turn out on Nov. 9 in a rejection of the president-elect's "bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia and misogyny."
By the next day, sites like The Free Thought sought to connect Soros to the unrest, noting that MoveOn has been a recipient of the Open Society Foundations' philanthropy. MoveOn, which is best known for its online petitions and organizing, said it was involved in organizing a single day of demonstrations.
Amateur sleuths among a community of Trump supporters on Reddit claimed to have unearthed a smoking gun. Under the headline "I Got Them!," one of member of The_Donald group claimed to have found evidence, on Craigslist, of non-profit groups paying for protests.
Jones' website, Infowars, trumpeted the "investigative report" on Nov. 14, under the headline "Proof — The Trump Protests Utilizing Paid Professional Protesters financed by George Soros."
The claim is bogus, according to the two non-profit groups whose help-wanted ads were cited by Infowars. Washington CAN! and Clean Water Action say they were looking for people to organize around issues of concern, such as clean water or racial justice.
"Before we realized what was going on … the phone started blowing up. We got all kinds of harassment. Three death threats. I heard the "n" word a couple of times," said Washington CAN's communications director Rosalind Brazel.
Trump was among the first to question the authenticity of the demonstrations that followed his election, describing those who turned out in cities across America as "professional protesters." The allegations of fake protests surfaced again when people took to the streets in Austin, Texas, with suspicions fed in part by a viral photo of buses — purported to be of paid protesters but later found to be connected with a data-sharing conference put on by Tableau Software.
Soros' contributions to a super PAC called Immigrant Voters Win, which was devoted to increasing Hispanic voter turnout in key swing states, and to a separate legal effort to protect voting rights in swing states — may also have fed perceptions that his wealth is changing election outcomes.
He also contributes directly to specific election campaigns, such as supporting the successful bid to defeat Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, according to campaign finance records.
It's not just traditional conservatives who are suspicious of the influence of big-money political donors like Soros, said commentator Malkin. It's also voters who were attracted to the anti-establishment candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"Citizens are skeptical of the influence big donors wield in American politics — whether it's George Soros on the left or the Koch brothers on the right," said Mason Harrison, a veteran of Gov. Mitt Romney's and Sen. John McCain's presidential campaigns, who now works for a Silicon Valley startup Crowdpac, which tracks political donations. "It's one of the reasons we've seen a sea change in small-dollar donors this election cycle; Americans want their democracy back."