When Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said on Twitter this week that Democrats “blocked my effort to try & force Soros backed prosecutors to put dangerous criminals in jail,” it may have sounded like a non sequitur coming amidst the Senate vote on the Inflation Reduction Act. As part of his remarks on the Senate floor explaining his opposition to the IRA, he claimed to be speaking for people who live in communities where “violent crime is rampant and you’ve got some crazy prosecutor that refuses to put people in jail, that refuses to prosecute entire categories of crime”—“real people,” he went on, “who are working every single day, who are not going to be driving an electric car… but they might get mugged.”
Rubio’s condemnation of “Soros-backed” prosecutors immediately evoked the age-old antisemitic right-wing conspiracy theory of secret cabals working in the shadows to undermine “real” America, something animating everything from the midcentury John Birch Society (now resurgent) to the post-millennial QAnon (still out there, some now demanding civil war to avenge the execution of a search warrant at a Florida resort owned by a former president). The comment is how antisemitism “takes root and spreads,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in response to Rubio on Twitter, noting how Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has also demonized Soros “to suppress freedom & democracy.” The Federalist deemed such pushback “cynical efforts to chill speech and smear Rubio,” offering as a defense that, indeed, George Soros is a major donor to campaigns to elect prosecutors on reform platforms.
Both these things can be true: When those on the right and their centrist allies seek to drum up opposition to these prosecutors, they often mention Soros; and they do so in ways which go beyond his role as a significant funder, positioning his philanthropy as part of a secret plot threatening America. They know what they are doing.
Soros has been a reliable scapegoat for the American right going back years now; the first time I saw a hit piece on him, it was by Glenn Beck, when he still had a Fox News show in 2010. Back then, the conspiracy theorists on the right were motivated by the election of Barack Obama, who they regarded as illegitimate, installed in the White House by liberal “puppet master” donors like Soros. (And in the interest of transparency: I briefly consulted on an Open Society Foundations sexual health and rights project in the mid-aughts, which was funded by Soros.)
There’s a lot to be said about purchasing influence with campaign donations, but this was not that. When the right went after Obama using Soros, it was as part of a web of conspiracy theories about Obama as an internal enemy. In 2010, these Soros conspiracy theories drove a man to attempt to assassinate staff at a foundation that Beck had attacked for its associations with Soros. After he was captured en route in a shootout with state police, the man gave a candid interview from jail, stating, “Beck will never say anything about a conspiracy, will never advocate violence. He’ll never do anything of this nature. But he’ll give you every ounce of evidence that you could possibly need.”
Such conspiracy theories helped motivate groups like the Oath Keepers, who in 2013 began recruiting “civilization preservation” teams to protect the American way of life from the societal collapse Obama was allegedly planning. White nationalist and far right threats and attacks ratcheted up over the course of Obama’s presidency, along with Republican pressure on agencies like the Department of Homeland Security to turn away from such threats.
During the Trump administration, these conspiracy theories didn’t dissolve. But they would operate on a different valence, as they moved closer than before to the political mainstream, and the far right could not so easily position themselves against an internal enemy in the White House. (Of course, that changed dramatically in the lead-up to January 6.) They still had George Soros; what they needed was a different purported puppet.
Campaigns for reform prosecutors rose with the Trump years. Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney, was one of the first high-profile wins in 2017. Like others who would follow, Krasner did not come out of the DA’s office; he joked that his career as a defense attorney made himself “completely unelectable” for the office. Contrary to the right’s framing, the drive to elect reform prosecutors was not borne of anything radical or oppositional to the rule of law. These campaigns asked liberals to vote for someone whose values may be more aligned with their own while they were still doing the work of locking people up. That did not seem to matter to opponents who would often paint these campaigns as a fundamental threat to the American way of life.
When a reform candidate challenged San Diego prosecutor Summer Stephan in 2018, the incumbent described George Soros as her opponent. “Billionaire George Soros has launched a campaign against me,” Stephan said on Twitter, promoting a website which leads with a photo of Soros, leaning back, hands steepled, with images meant to represent antifascists behind him. A Soros-funded group had, at that point, spent $1.5 million backing her opponent. The website claimed: “Soros backs anti-law enforcement candidates over experienced prosecutors, trying to tip the balance to the criminals,” and offered a list of more than a dozen, including Krasner. Stephan ducked a reporter’s question when asked if she regretted putting up the website. In an op-ed, members of the San Diego Jewish community, some of whom worked for Stephan’s challenger Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a Black woman, demanded Stephan apologize for “stoking antisemitic fears,” and for “race-baiting” her opponent. Stephan eventually deleted the website, they added, only after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue and the arrest of a man who mailed a pipe bomb to George Soros.
The right now smells blood in the water with the reform prosecutor campaigns, after the recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin, in a race seen nationally as a referendum not just on reform prosecutor campaigns, but on the fate of American cities. Boudin was branded a “Soros prosecutor” by The Heritage Foundation, one of the “pro-criminal, anti-victim zealots who flout the rule of law” they said Soros sought to install across the United States. The pro-recall side received more than $7 million in campaign donations, the vast majority from a PAC backed by billionaire real estate developers. Boudin was replaced in a special appointment by the mayor with “the public face of the recall,” Brooke Jenkins, who reportedly received $100,000 for consulting work she did to boost the recall campaign.
When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ousted State Attorney Andrew Warren last week, for allegedly refusing to enforce anti-abortion and anti-transgender laws even though his office has had no occasion to, he nodded to the Boudin recall effort. It was clear DeSantis saw this move as having a broader significance, and went on Tucker Carlson’s show to explain. “Tucker, you documented the destruction that we’ve seen with these Soros prosecutors around the country,” DeSantis said. “We pulled the trigger today.”