The Loneliest Billionaire

A billboard in Hungary that was part of Viktor Orban’s anti-George Soros campaign, which reads “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh!” The billboards were taken down in advance of a state visit from israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the campaign had been accused of anti-Semitism.

I’m thinking of writing a one-act play á là Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape that would feature progressive billionaire George Soros alone on stage in a small pool of light with only a stool and an iPhone for company. The play would mostly be him scrolling and muttering to himself in increasingly unhinged non-sequiturs, the gist of which we eventually glean is his existential angst at being the only progressive billionaire, which means he thus must shoulder all of the instinctive hatred for billionaires directed at him from right-wing media and politicians. “Mercer, Murdoch, Musk,” he mutters in what becomes a refrain, “Koch. Bezos. They share. They share. (he scrolls for a long moment, then looks out at the darkness in the direction of the audience) Soros. Alone.”

The play ends midway through the pandemic. Soros grows more and more excited as he reads conspiracy theorists’ attacks on Bill Gates accusing him of putting mind-control chips in the covid vaccine. Soros looks up from his phone with a look of fragile hope on his face as he whispers, “Is there another?

All of which is by way of saying that I’m endlessly fascinated by the way in which George Soros has become the singular bogeyman of the alt-right and Steve Bannon’s cohort, of QAnon conspiracy theorists, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, current darling of the Tucker Carlson wing of the GOP (lots of overlaps in that Venn diagram, to be sure). When it comes to the question of billionaires, I’m generally in agreement Elizabeth Warren: that is, the existence of billionaires qua billionaires isn’t a problem; a proliferation of multi-billionaires existing concurrently with systemic poverty and hunger, widespread lack of access to health care, and the ongoing climate crisis is a moral obscenity. And while apologists might point to the Gates Foundation’s work to address some of these problems or the fact that Elon Musk has done more to move us toward electric vehicles than any group of people, well, kudos to them … but they remain a vanishingly small minority of the class.

More common is the Atlas Shrugged brand of libertarianism embraced by the likes of Charles Koch and his late brother David, which frames the making of obscene amounts of money as a form of virtue—and which tirelessly spends a huge amount of that money to ensure that it stays with the ultra-rich and furthers their ability to accumulate even more wealth. New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer wrote an excellent, exhaustive book titled Dark Money in 2017, which did a deep and detailed dive into the vast sums spent by right-wing billionaires in shoring up conservative politicians at all levels of government—from local school boards to congress and the White House—as well as funding climate disinformation campaigns, conservative think tanks like the Claremont Institute and anti-tax organizations like American for Prosperity, as well as a huge constellation of other right-wing causes.

If there was something even approaching numerical parity between progressive and conservative billionaires, each advancing their political interests like Olympian gods choosing sides in the Trojan War, that would be one thing (it wouldn’t resolve or really even ameliorate the structural problems of billionaires in an inequitable society, but it would definitely be a thing). But the fact of the matter is that the conservative vilification of Soros’ progressive agenda is profoundly disingenuous, for the simple reason that he’s all they’ve got to attack, while on their side they’ve got Rupert Murdoch, Peter Thiel, Charles Koch, Robert and Rebekah Mercer—who are collectively worth over $100B compared to Soros’ $8.6B—as well as a legion of others who actively spend their money on conservative political causes.

Of course, there’s also Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men who tends to voice liberal political opinions and is nominally in favour of higher taxes for the rich, but he’s largely left alone—for reasons I won’t speculate on for at least a few paragraphs—by the right-wing mediasphere.

There’s also the fact that, for all his mouthing of liberal platitudes, Buffett doesn’t do much to put his money where his mouth is, and has frequently been accused of hypocrisy by right and left alike. Indeed, even the most “liberal” of billionaires tend more to gesture at social progressivism while accumulating wealth through the most ruthless means available, espousing a libertarianism that puts free speech and legal weed in the same philosophical framework as industry deregulation and low taxes for the über-rich. Even Bill Gates, arguably the most socially conscious of the billionaire class, dismisses the policies of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders out of hand on the principle that individuals are better judges of how to spend their money than the government.

And if all billionaires—or really, just some of them—established their own versions of the Gates Foundation, he might have something approaching a point. But of course he and George Soros are the outliers, with most billionaires who engage in politics doing so with an eye to entrenching their wealth and facilitating the means to make more.

(If I’m being conspicuous in not mentioning Elon Musk, it’s because Musk is pretty much sui generis, falling into a category of his own devising that is somewhere between chaos muppet and Bond villain. If it weren’t for the fact that the man can tank the stock market with a tweet, it would be amusing to watch his new alt-right fanboys reconcile their love of Musk’s shitposting with the fact that he’s the godfather of the EV revolution).

 So pity poor George Soros, the loneliest billionaire. As the sole progressive plutocrat who actually funds progressive causes, he gets the brunt of the paranoid right’s vitriol. Though if you find it puzzling as to the frequency and intensity of the attacks on a man with one sixteenth of Jeff Bezos’ wealth—which is still more money than any one person should be able to possess—you might want to take note of how often the name “Soros” is spoken in the same breath as “globalist.” Or to put it more plainly: it’s the anti-Semitism, stupid.

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