On his average days, the space czar, social-media baron and electric car kingpin known as Elon Musk tweaks algorithms, ponders the profit margins of the universe and, depending on your biases, plays the role of the archetypal bad guy in a James Bond film.
But Musk, too, has a vision of villainy in this world, as he let the world know via Twitter this week.
It looks like the 92-year-old Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist known as George Soros.
“Soros reminds me of Magneto,” Musk wrote on Twitter, referring to the Marvel Comics character described as a tortured Holocaust survivor with the power to control magnetic fields — a figure who, according to a Marvel fan site, uses his powers to “subjugate humanity by brute force.”
Criticized, Musk doubled down: “I’d like to apologize for this post. It was unfair to Magneto.”
If Musk’s post sounds hyperbolic then, a) welcome to Twitter, and, b) welcome to the world of George Soros, whom critics — including authoritarians, dictators, populists and extreme-right politicians — appear to consider the elderly incarnation of all that is wrong and evil.
Proud of his enemies
In his tenth decade, he’s still a central figure in business and politics, which fuels the fires of those raging against him. He is one of the investors poised to take control of Vice after the digital media company fell into bankruptcy protection, and it must be noted that Musk’s hostile tweets came after Soros sold his stake in Tesla, Musk’s electric car company.
But the acrimony is old and international. In China, Soros was labelled a global economic terrorist in 2021. In Russia, his philanthropic Open Society Foundation was banned. The Central European University, which Soros established to ease the transition from dictatorship to democracy, was kicked out of Hungary.
“This is a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in 2018, accusing Soros of backing anti-government protests. After suggesting the Indian government of Narendra Modi was standing in the way of the country’s “democratic revival,” Soros was denounced as “old, rich, opinionated” — all three grounded in fact — but also “dangerous.”
“He used to say that he was proud of his enemies, because they proved by who they were that he was right,” Anna Porter, author of the 2015 biography, “Buying a Better World: George Soros and Billionaire Philanthropy,” said in an interview.
“Do I believe that? I’ve met him and I’ve watched him and listened to him … and I think he has really been hurt by the noise level, the decibel level of hatred.”
To remake the world
Soros was born in 1930 in Hungary to a silk merchant mother and a lawyer father — a Jewish family which changed its name from Schwartz amid rising anti-Semitism, a few years before the Nazi invasion.
The young George avoided the concentration camps by posing as the adopted son of a government official, and has famously recalled witnessing the confiscation of a Jewish family’s estate. This key biographical moment has since been twisted by his modern enemies into allegations that a powerless child was somehow a Nazi collaborator.
He was not and, according to biographer Michael Kaufman, later spent years in therapy dealing with the trauma his wartime experience, including the impact that the “temporary, necessary and pragmatic denial of Jewishness … had had on the development of his personality.”
After the war, Soros moved to London, studied at the London School of Economics, launched a promising career in finance and founded the Soros Management Fund, one of the most successful hedge funds in history — a short version of his long tale. One of his most spectacular and infamous financial coups came after he earned a quick billion dollars by trading against the British pound, causing it to devalue and earning him the nickname, “The man who broke the Bank of England.”
But beneath his business suits beat the heart of a philosopher — one who embraced arguments. Soros began using his personal wealth to fund dissidents in Communist states in Europe, acting through his philanthropic Open Societies group; after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, his ambitions grew.
“He has pretty much dedicated his money to trying to remake the world in a way that he considers fairer,” said Porter. “His charitable dollars have not gone the traditional way.”
Some wealthy benefactors put their money into the arts, or build hospital wings and university endowments. Soros, a thrice-married father of five, stands apart for his forward-leaning agendas.
The Open Society Foundation is credited with supporting the leading human-rights group during Georgia’s so-called Rose Revolution in 2004, and his International Renaissance Foundation has spent three decades funding Ukrainian democracy, anti-corruption, human rights and European integration. But there was furor in Britain when it was revealed he had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds backing a campaign to stop the U.K. from leaving the European Union.
“He’s not just giving money as a philanthropist,” said Neil McLaughlin, a McMaster University sociology professor who has studied Soros’ impact. “He writes books and connects himself with human rights activists. He’s kind of a bit of an activist.”
In response to a 2018 critic of his philosophy, Soros responded that he was no optimist about history’s direction, “which is why I have spent my life actively trying to bend the arc in a positive direction.”
Skin in the game
In the United States, the Soros-bashing — principally by Republicans — has been renewed of late.
A few weeks back — before being found liable in a civil suit for sexual abuse and defamation, and before celebrating a report that criticized an FBI investigation into Donald Trump’s links to Russia — Trump was busy being indicted in New York over hush-money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels. Soros’s name was on the tip of the former president’s tongue.
Trump blasted Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg as a man “hand-picked and funded by George Soros.” And when pushed to comment on Trump’s legal woes, his main political rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, spoke of “the weaponization of the legal system” by “the Soros-backed Manhattan district attorney.”
Read though right-wing U.S. media on any given day and there’s a good chance you’ll see references Soros-funded officials in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Georgia, Massachusetts and Maine, and elsewhere. In many cases, they are Democratic Party candidates who got money directly or indirectly from Soros or his well-funded political action committee, Democracy PAC.
McLaughlin says Soros is just working within the U.S. system and “gives money for progressive causes because he wants to end the drug war and mass incarceration,” adding that while the billionaire is often attacked as a meddlesome outsider, he is an American citizen and, as such, “has skin in the game.”
“I think it’s unfair to criticize him, because he’s not the only one who gives a lot of money to political campaigns,” McLaughlin said from Vienna, where he was visiting Soros’ Central European University.
“I do think it’s fair to say there’s too much money in politics and he’s contributing to that.”
‘We are a dominant power’
Soros himself has described his professional and philanthropic endeavours as diametrically opposed, with the former consisting of cold, calculating decisions and the other guided by his values.
“I learned at a very early age that what kind of social system or political system prevails is very important. Not just for your well-being, but for your very survival,” Soros told PBS in a 2003 interview. “I could have been killed by the Nazis. I could have wasted my life under the Communists. So, that’s what led me to this idea of an open society.”
That interview also marked the advent of the American political activity that has made his name something of a curse word in right-wing Republican circles. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Global War on Terror, and then-president George W. Bush’s with-us-or-against-us worldview ran straight up against Soros’ own.
“It offends me because I think it’s a misinterpretation of what America’s role in the world out to be. We are the dominant power. And that imposes on us a responsibility to be actually concerned with the well-being of the world,” he said in the PBS interview. Problems like terrorism, he continued, “can only be tackled by collective action. And we ought to be leading that collective action, instead of riding roughshod over other peoples’ opinions and interests.”
Soros backed Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and later Hillary Clinton’s before her 2016 loss to Trump. According to Influence Watch, which tracks U.S. political lobbying and fundraising, he has backed the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements and given some $90 million (all figures U.S.) to groups that participated in the 2017 Women’s March to protest Trump’s election.
In last year’s midterm elections, he was the largest single contributor to political action committees, giving $128.5 million, according to the Washington Post.
And just as the American left calls foul at the money-for-influence relationship between Republicans and groups like the National Rifle Association, U.S. conservatives raise concerns about Soros’ sway over Democrats. A paper last November by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-wing Florida think-tank, alleged that regional district attorneys backed by Soros money were recklessly instituting policies aimed at reducing the number of people held in custody.
It tied these policies to sharp rises in violent crime and invoked the Trump-inspired myth that the 2020 elections were stolen from the Republicans. “Just as these Soros-backed district attorneys have declined to prosecute or went lenient on crimes against people and property, they could just as easily turn a blind eye to violations of election law,” the report warned.
‘The last laugh’
But it’s not just Soros’ money and his policy beliefs upon which his critics base their attacks.
In 2017, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was campaigning for a third term in office on an anti-immigrant platform. It was two years after hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan had marched through the country in a bid for asylum protections in Europe — a mass migration that Orban claimed Soros himself had orchestrated to force sovereign countries to take in Muslim refugees.
His face was suddenly everywhere. Soros’ sneering image on billboards relayed a simple message to voters: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh!”
What followed was a re-election fight waged on the billionaire’s back, University of Toronto anthropology professor Ivan Kalmar wrote in a 2018 study.
“(Orban) spoke of an enemy that is ‘unlike what we are. It is not national, but international. It does not believe in work, but speculates with money,’” Kalmar wrote. “His speech was widely understood … as drawing on anti-Semitic tropes. And yet, Orban never strayed into explicit anti-Semitism.”
Neither did Trump when his 2016 election ad flashed Soros’s face when speaking of “those who control the levers of power in Washington and … the global special interests” — more not-so-subtle coding in reference to his Jewish origins, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency.
The point, it’s argued, is to make a subtle wink to those attuned to the conspiracy theories, the coded messages and the hate. McLaughlin says it’s unwise to think the sentiment is widespread, “but I do think that it registers. I think that’s why they keep doing it.”
‘Hasn’t made the difference’
After Musk’s Magneto tweet, someone had the generosity to presume that the Twitter owner might have been unaware of the shared Holocaust experiences of the supervillain and the billionaire.
Soros, Musk was told, “gets attacked non-stop” for his politics despite his good intentions. “You assume they are good intentions,” Musk replied. “They are not. He wants to erode the very fabric of civilization. Soros hates humanity.”
Musk has never been one for subtlety, but if his sweeping denunciation is evidence of anything, it is the philanthropist’s ultimate failure, said Porter.
“After all this, really, it hasn’t made the difference that he dreamed it would make. Even looking back at his basic philosophy, which was to encourage discussion and debate, well, an awful lot of that kind of discussion — civil discussion, ideas that you can discuss without being shut down — even that’s gone from the right and the left.
And there’s not much hope of him turning that around at this late stage in his life, much as he might dream of doing, she said.
“I feel sad for Soros in many ways, but you can’t buy a better world.”