George Soros was back in the news after, in an address at the ongoing World Economic Forum in Davos, he took aim at global leaders such as Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi, who he criticised as being authoritarian.
He even announced he would set aside $1 billion to create a global network of universities to promote education for victims of prejudice, liberal values and an open society.
Eighty-nine-year-old Soros, estimated to be worth about USD 8.3 billion as per Forbes, earned his riches by becoming, according to many, the world’s greatest trader.
He has also used his vast wealth for several philanthropic causes. But he also carries the dubious distinction of being the subject of countless conspiracy theories, mostly propagated by the far right wing, which range from nasty to borderline crazy.
So who is George Soros, and why is he hated so much by some? Here’s a lowdown.
Who is George Soros?
Born in 1930 in Hungary, Soros escaped Nazi occupation and immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1947.
He attended the London School of Economics and later worked at merchant banks in the UK and US.
He then started the Quantum Fund with Jim Rogers, which between 1970 and 1980 returned 4,200 percent in a decade in which the S&P 500 rose only 35 percent.
Over the next decades, Soros’ reputation as a trader par excellence only grew. Yet his investment career was peppered by accusations of foul play, and his extra-market activities becoming the subject of much speculation.
One of Soros’ greatest trading bets was also one that earned him much notoriety. When the UK was undergoing a currency crisis in 1992, Soros bet that the country had no option but to exit the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
He shorted the pound by $10 billion, and when what he expected came to be true, the pound sank, earning him $1 billion in a single trade. This earned him the title of being “the man who broke the Bank of England”.
During the Asian currency crisis in 1997, he also took a successful position against the Malaysian ringgit, thinking the currency to be particularly weak.
But Soros’ bet against the currency didn’t go down too well with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad who accused Soros – “a Jew” -- of wanting to destabilise the country, to the point that he was declared persona non grata. (They settled their differences later.)
What Soros has earned through his bold, and often, brute-force bets, he has spent on initiatives he believes are close to him.
His Open Society Foundations until 2017 funded $12 billion worth toward civil initiatives to reduce poverty and increase transparency, and on scholarships and universities around the world.
But Soros’ personal beliefs – he is a proponent of liberal democracies and an open society and often publicly donates to politicians who he believes share his ideas – have also led to a whirlwind of allegations.
For instance, he is accused of triggering the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union by funding groups in the region via the Open Society Institute, a non-profit.
He is also accused -- usually by his detractors on the far right wing, both Christian and Muslim -- of using his wealth and influence in financial markets, of destabilising or overthrowing foreign governments, creating anarchy, and being “Satanic”.
Soros has been the subject of conspiracy theories for decades. But the rise of ultra-conservative nationalism in several global democracies means that the theories have moved, as The New York Times, put it, "from the dark corners of the Internet and talk radio" to "the very center of the political debate".
The script is simple: Soros’ declared affiliation with liberal values means he is accused of not only promoting left-liberal leaders around the world but also secretly controlling them. When they are not in power, Soros apparently makes it his mission to bring down his opponents by any means possible.
Soros’ Jew lineage also makes him an easy target for Christian far-right leaders in Europe. (In 1992, Hungarian populist anti-Semitic leader Istvan Csurka called Soros a “puppet of Jerusalem”.)
And in what would have come to Soros as a particularly unkind cut was when his birth country, Hungary, which has increasingly turned conservative, in 2017 hosted a Parliament speech titled “The Christian duty is to fight against the Satan/Soros plan.”
Such is hatred for Soros in his home country, thanks to a relentless campaign by the government, that, according to one report, some of the country’s children think “George Soros is the devil”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin too in 2018 said Soros “intervenes in things all over the world”.
While in the Muslim world, besides Mahathir, Soros has also been targeted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan who said “the famous Hungarian Jew” was behind the 2018 protests against the Turkish President.
But in the US, Soros has been targeted by both centre-right leaders who despise him for his liberal views – former New York Rudy Guliani called him a “self-hating Jew” – and the extreme right, which accuses him of, well, nearly about everything.
For instance, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in 2007 ranted about Soros, calling him an “an extremist who wants open borders, a one-world foreign policy, legalized drugs, euthanasia, and on and on.”In 2010, US talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh accused Soros of being a “puppet master” manipulating Barack Obama and “pulling the marionette strings here of our leader of the regime.”