A spectre is haunting Texas — the spectre of Soros. Let’s talk for a minute about how to use political rhetoric responsibly, shall we? For most of the last decade it’s been a cinch for Texas Republicans to rile up their base, because around every corner lurked the shadow of Barry Obama, poised to take your guns, teach your kids how to hit a bong and force cowboys to kiss each other. Every fundraising email and speech warned of this dark menace. And then, one day, he was gone.
Texas Republicans could either end the fear-mongering or find a new boogeyman, and you can guess which option they chose. The new enemy of our Lone Star volk is an 86-year-old Hungarian-American billionaire named George Soros, who has inherited Obama’s so-far failing plot to make Texas a gayer, more gunless state. (California.)
Conservatives have long hated Soros. But lately there’s been an absolute deluge. You may not be aware of this, because Texas Republicans have confined most of their whinging to the backchannels where they communicate with the most diehard members of their base. If you receive the emails that Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick and Ted Cruz send to their fans, your email inbox is now awash in his name.
Cruz tells his supporters that the son of the “notorious” Soros has given a few thousand dollars to his opponent, fearfully offering that “the partnership between Beto O’Rourke and the billionaire Soros family won’t be easy to overcome,” and adding in another email that the Soros family had gone “ALL IN” on knocking off Ted. Patrick feels he’s the bigger target, emphasizing that he’s been made “Public Enemy #1” by the Soros Machine, who is “putting a big spotlight on my race for re-election” and “will invest millions in Texas to try to defeat me.” In February, the Harris County Republican Party took a page from tinpot dictators around the world and told its faithful that angry protesters at Republican town halls were being paid by Soros.
But the biggest Soros-baiter of all is Abbott. He’s sent dozens of emails to supporters mentioning Soros in passing or emphasizing his danger. The messages started out pretty banal: Soros is orchestrating the effort to “attack Texas” and “defeat Governor Abbott.” Then they got shriller and weirder. One fundraising email subject line reads, “Obama to void 2016 results?” Obama’s plot, we learn inside, is funded by Soros. Another: “Gun ban in Texas?” Guess who’s coming to steal your guns: “Liberal billionaire George Soros has poured millions of dollars into trying to eliminate your Second Amendment rights,” the email reads. “COME AND TAKE IT!”
On July 29, Abbott doubled down in an unusual op-ed for the Washington Examiner: “How George Soros is helping Obama Democrats buy their way back to power.” Soros was the force behind modest Dem gains in the state in 2016, Abbott said, and now the governor and Texas values are in the crosshairs. “The Soros network has their sights set on re-drawing congressional districts in the Lone Star State to push their progressive agenda and turn the Texas dream into a California nightmare,” the governor wrote.
All of this barely raises an eyebrow from political observers. Yet these serious politicians share their Soros obsession with some of the country’s most cartoonish lunatics. Alex Jones recently told a jury at his child custody trial that Soros was behind a plot to make weed stronger as a population-control device. Alt-righter Augustus Sol Invictus (that’s Latin for Majestic Unconquered Sun, mind you) led a rally in Austin with a chant of “Death to Soros.” Meanwhile, one of the president’s top allies, Roger Stone, is telling everyone he can that Soros is personally orchestrating a burgeoning deep-state coup to dethrone the president.
Abbott and friends don’t actually fear Soros, of course. They’re capitalizing on a pre-existing hatred of the man. Soros is certainly an influential figure on the world stage, and he donates money to many liberal causes. But his expenditures in Texas are insignificant compared to the ocean of money that’s come from other billionaires and millionaires over the years — the Wilks brothers, the late Bob Perry, Jeff Sandefer, Tim Dunn and others — and they exercise a far greater influence over policy and politics.
No other liberal donors have achieved the same level of hatred, either. Tom Steyer spent $87 million during the presidential election and hardly anyone knows his name. Let’s set aside any consideration of whether Soros’ influence is bad or good. There’s clearly something about the man that engenders an unusually deep level of hatred and fear, something that grants the symbol of Soros special power and has been burned into people’s brains in a way that enables Abbott to build a fundraising strategy around it.
Let’s speak plainly: A very substantial part of Soros’ power as a scapegoat is that he’s a Jew. He’s the embodiment of some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes there are, concepts that run deep in our cultural subconscious. Critics of Soros across the globe emphasize his status as a man without borders who manipulates the world through finance and foments social and moral decay wherever he goes, a secret power perpetuating the world’s ills through shadowy influence games. The epithet of choice for people concerned about that kind of thing used to be “Rothschild.” Now it’s “Soros.”
For a fun game, look through conservative media and count the times that Soros’ face is depicted from below, emphasizing his nose, or how often he’s compared to a puppetmaster, most famously by Glenn Beck, or an octopus, whose tentacles extend around the globe. Those are timeless anti-Semitic clichés. There’s also the bizarre and long-running right-wing fascination with the idea that Soros, who was a preteen in Hungary during the Holocaust, was somehow a Nazi collaborator, a traitor to his people.
All this becomes even more clear when you look at the places in the world where Soros hate is strongest. In Malaysia, the former prime minister once accused Soros of being part of an international Jewish cabal that orchestrated the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In Hungary, a proto-fascist political coalition led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is fighting to shut down an entire university whose endowment was provided by Soros, labeling it an importer of liberal degeneracy — while using the same puppetmaster iconography Glenn Beck did. Over the last year, anti-Soros talking points used by Putin and Orbán’s governments have increasingly been regurgitated word for word by Republicans in Congress.
The important thing about these tropes is that you don’t need to be cognizant of them to perpetuate them, and the people who write Abbott’s emails probably aren’t. They’re centuries old. But that’s what gives them their power. Liberal hatred of the Koch brothers works similarly — it’s composed of fear of their real influence, multiplied by the way they fit neatly into another trope, that of the cruel and unfeeling top-hat-and-monocle-wearing businessman, Mr. Potter with billions.
The difference is that the Koch trope isn’t really bigotry, whereas the Soros one is dark magic. Historically, when you play with it, you’re playing with fire. The American obsession with Soros as a hidden power originates in unsettling and weird places, like Alex Jones’ show. But it enters mainstream discourse through repetition by leaders like Abbott.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, which normalized so much that is dark in American life, you might hope elected Republicans would be more careful about their rhetoric. Then again, Abbott is the fellow who set off the Jade Helm fiasco. A test of character, it’s said, is what you do when no one’s looking. And a good test of political character is what you say to the people who always believe you. What Abbott and friends are telling their most diehard supporters is creepy, weird and just a little bit dangerous.
But more than that, it speaks to a poverty of the imagination. When we see foreign strongmen like Hungary’s Orbán lean so heavily on threats posed by a foreign menace, we tend to suspect that they’re doing so because their own agenda has so little to offer that it can’t live or die on its own merits. Fortunately we live in Texas, where our leader has a bold plan for our future: whatever Dan Patrick wants, plus a mysterious and abiding hatred of trees.