On Thursday evening, the bombshell news broke that Donald Trump would be indicted in New York on 34 counts related to allegations of misappropriated campaign funds. It was the first time in history that criminal charges had been filed against a former president, and the reactions ranged from gleeful and celebratory among Trump’s foes to, uh, however you would characterize the response from Trump’s former White House physician (and current Panhandle congressman) Ronny Jackson.
For several of the highest-profile Republican officials in Texas, however, the reaction was a bit more subdued—and focused on one figure. It wasn’t Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who secured the indictment from a grand jury—at least, he wasn’t brought up by name. Rather, Governor Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, and Attorney General Ken Paxton—not to mention Congressman Wesley Hunt, of Houston—all singled out a 92-year-old Hungarian-born American Jewish billionaire as the shadowy puppet master behind the prosecution.
In the immediate wake of Trump’s indictment, the former president and some other prominent Republicans, including Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, called out Soros in their attacks on Bragg. Trump claimed in a statement that Bragg was “hand-picked and funded by George Soros,” and the Texas officials clearly got the messaging memo. But the actual connection between Bragg and Soros is rather more tenuous than Trump and his defenders allege. Soros is a donor to the progressive group Color of Change (though hardly the only significant one), which endorsed Bragg in 2021 and spent nearly half a million dollars promoting his candidacy. Soros himself did not donate to Bragg’s campaign, let alone “hand-pick” the district attorney.
Soros is a prolific donor to progressive causes, which partly explains why his name resonates on the right. But both in the United States and Europe, a mention of Soros also carries a very specific implication that taps into some old antisemitic tropes about powerful Jews manipulating a hidden global order.
By name-dropping Soros, the Texas officials participated in a tradition of invoking his name as a bogeyman. Eastern European autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan do so specifically to tap into antisemitism among a significant share of their voters. In 2017, in the run-up to Hungary’s 2018 parliamentary elections, Orbán’s government put up posters with photos of Soros’s grinning face around the country, with the words “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh!” in an echo of Nazi-era propaganda, which often featured sinister Jewish faces laughing. The following year, during the campaign, Orbán’s attacks on Soros became even more explicitly antisemitic. “We must fight against an opponent which is different from us,” he said, in a speech that urged Hungarians to “fight against what the empire of George Soros is doing to Hungary.” Orbán described Soros as a menace who “speculate[s] with money”; a member of a group of people that “have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”
That same year, Erdogan blamed “the famous Hungarian Jew Soros” for Turkey’s past problems, while Vladimir Putin, at a joint press conference with then-president Trump in Helsinki, singled out Soros—a naturalized American citizen since 1961—as an un-American force with “multibillion capitals.”
Whether or not Abbott, Cruz, and the others deliberately intended to conjure that same antisemitism in naming Soros as the force behind Trump’s indictment, framing him as the “hidden figure” pulling the DA’s strings puts them in the company of those who do—and could act as a dog whistle for those who do.
It is, of course, possible to criticize Soros without being antisemitic. He was the largest single donor to either party in 2022, and he is a prolific funder of progressive causes that Abbott, Cruz, and others disagree with. (It’s worth noting, however, that the next four high-dollar campaign donors were Republicans, and they combined to contribute twice what Soros gave Democrats.) But the statements from the Texas leaders contained no specific criticisms of Soros. They merely name-checked him as the force behind the indictment and let the imaginations of those who read the messages do the rest of the work. This isn’t a new thing for American political actors, but it used to happen more on the fringes. Glenn Beck, then a Fox News host, spent Barack Obama’s first term depicting Soros as the president’s “puppet master,” and Beck smeared him with unfounded accusations of secretly selling out his fellow Jews growing up in Nazi-occupied Budapest. Alex Jones, picking up on what Beck was putting down, called Soros a “literal Nazi collaborator” in 2016, and he later accused Austin district court judge Maya Guerra Gamble, who presided over his 2022 defamation trial, of being “a Soros operative.”
Until recent years, though, mainstream Republicans who wished to attack Soros tended to focus on what he was funding (i.e., progressive causes) or the undue influence of money in politics (a critique that pointed three fingers back at themselves), rather than merely saying his name with the clear understanding that it would be an effective way to attack opponents such as Bragg as being puppets on Soros’s string.
That the use of Soros’s name as shorthand for a shrouded figure manipulating global affairs is now common among Texas leaders is unfortunate and troubling. It’s not unexpected that Abbott, Cruz, Hunt, Paxton, and other GOP leaders would disagree—forcefully, even—with the decision to charge Trump. But it’s fair to be disappointed that they’ve chosen to express that disagreement by evoking the same specter that figures like Erdogan, Orbán, and Alex Jones invoke.