Depending on where you stand politically, the name “George Soros” can mean one of two things. To the left, Soros is a political activist, an incredibly wealthy man who spends a lot of money to support causes he believes in, like immigration reform and criminal justice reform. In other words, Soros does exactly what millions of other Americans do: he gives his time and money to organizations that align with his values.
On the right, however, George Soros represents something far more sinister. Conservatives have come to view Soros as a rich man using his vast sums of money to place his finger on the scale of American politics. And the further to the right you go, the more nefarious his motives seem; there is a not-insignificant amount of the conservative population who believes that Soros wants to destroy the very fabric of American democracy.
As a result, Soros has become a sort of golden parachute in partisan debates: on a long-enough timeline, no matter the topic, somebody will invoke Soros’ name in an attempt to invalidate the other side’s perspective. Cite FactCheck.org, for example, and the counter will inevitably be “That site is funded by Soros,” as if facts and their supporting evidence can be molded to suit one’s needs — provided they have enough money.
In some cases, Soros doesn’t even need to be directly involved with a particular event. Take, for example, the protest in April demanding that President Trump release his tax returns. Thousands of Americans are concerned about the various sources of Trump’s income and whether they pose a conflict of interest between President Trump and Businessman Trump, and rightfully so. Right-wing outlets, however, sidestepped the actual debate — whether a conflict of interest does exist, or perhaps whether the historical standard of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns is actually necessary — in favor of a fake one: George Soros was paying protesters to attend.
It was a blatant attempt to change the subject, but an alarming number of Americans went along with it. Even if Soros did pay people to protest (which he didn’t), would it even really matter? A protest isn’t a piece of legislation — it’s an expression of anger. And since Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns, it’s obviously not a particularly effective method of getting results.
Many Americans on the right have embraced the idea that one man is secretly influencing the course of American politics, but there’s one common-sense issue with that theory. Aren’t shadowy figures supposed to be a bit more…I don’t know…shadowy? George Soros has been a vocal opponent of Trump since his inauguration — he’s made his opinions of Trump and the Trump administration’s policies clearly known. Conspiracies usually don’t take place in plain sight.
The false idea that George Soros is some sort of political puppet master isn’t about Soros himself; not really, anyway. Instead, it has to do with a simple, discouraging truth: Americans love conspiracy theories, and the internet has made it worse.
In eras past, a conspiracy theory was largely kept private. An individual might question the official story of an event, but they rarely shared their doubts; at least, not without any proof. With the advent of the internet, however, conspiracy theorists can now find validation from those who share their beliefs, no matter how divorced from the facts they may be.
These individuals no longer possess the capacity for debate or difference of opinion. They believe that their truth is The Truth; either you can get on board or you’ll be dismissed entirely. It’s much easier to believe that anyone whose opinion differs from your own is either a) stupid or b) in on it than it is to accept the possibility that you’re wrong.
What makes this line of thinking so dangerous is the ease with which truthers will disregard any facts that don’t support their views in favor of “evidence” — however misleading or speculative — that does. On a long-enough timeline, this selective regard for the facts will lead truthers to become untethered from reality; if facts are not concrete, if they are in the eye of the beholder, then facts are meaningless. As Drew Magary once put it, “A truther is a rabid devotee of horseshit — someone who can take any imperfection in a tragic narrative and construct an iron mountain of garbage from it. And they’ll probably end up dooming us all.”
If the right’s ideas of the left’s intentions for the future of this country are bricks, someone like George Soros is the mortar: whenever they reach an impasse or come across a fact they cannot ignore or spin in an entirely different direction, a figure like Soros is there to paper over any inconsistencies in their arguments. I don’t harbor any delusions that those who subscribe to these theories will suddenly be convinced, and that’s fine. But buying into the myths doesn’t make you the smart one — it makes you the mark.