If you want to diagnose our era's political disease, just mention George Soros. Somehow, the billionaire philanthropist is simultaneously its cause, its cure and its victim.
That was apparent in Budapest this week. One of Europe's most important higher-education institutions, Central European University, is on the verge of being forced to close its doors and stop issuing degrees to its 1,500 graduate students. University president Michael Ignatieff, the former Canadian Liberal leader, is fighting for the institution's survival after Hungary's parliament, led by far-right populist Viktor Orban, passed a bill that would effectively deny the university the right to operate on the grounds that it is "foreign."
Central European University was created by, and is largely funded by, George Soros. The Hungarian-American investor launched the university just as the region's communist regimes were collapsing after 1989 – one of his earliest efforts to support democratic values and build institutions in volatile postauthoritarian countries.
Mr. Orban makes no secret of his hatred of Mr. Soros. The Hungarian Prime Minister has denounced him in speeches as a "large-bodied predator" who runs a "trans-border empire" and somehow created the Syrian refugee crisis. That characterization of Mr. Soros – as the embodiment of a menacing global Jewish conspiracy – is shared by his MPs.
Denouncing a Soros-led conspiracy is a rite of passage for far-right politicians. Like the Emmanuel Goldstein character in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mr. Soros is the symbolic touchstone for the politics of intolerance: It is enough just to utter his name, or post his face on Twitter or Facebook, to evoke ancient anti-Semitic conspiracies.
That was what Donald Trump's campaign was accused of doing in November when it made its largest single advertising expenditure on a TV spot denouncing Mr. Soros and other prominent Jews as "global special interests" who "control the levers of power" and "don't have your good in mind." The ad was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League as resembling anti-Semitic propaganda.
Mr. Soros has since been accused of bankrolling the anti-Trump protests and electoral campaigns. Which is partially true: It's hard to find a pro-democracy or human-rights charity or get-out-the-vote organization that has never received Soros money (though those organizations also protested Barack Obama). Mr. Soros has denounced Mr. Trump as an autocrat. Yet, he also financed him by lending him hundreds of millions of dollars to build towers in Chicago and New York.
And there is the core paradox of Mr. Soros: He is not only the target of politicians such as Mr. Orban and Mr. Trump, he is, in many cases, their enabler.
It is fair to say Mr. Orban was created by Mr. Soros. The latter's Open Society Foundations were the guiding force behind the launch, in the 1980s, of Mr. Orban's political party, Fidesz, which began as a youthful anti-communist movement before a million-dollar Soros grant turned it into a major party. Mr. Soros paid for Mr. Orban's Oxford education and paid him a monthly stipend of almost $2,000, which allowed him to pursue a political career.
Mr. Soros recognized the dark irony of his position 22 years ago: By using his limitless money to promote wide-open political freedom, he has also empowered those who use his image to promote its opposite.
"I have become a prime target for the current version of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. If there was ever a man who would fit the stereotype of the Judeo-plutocratic Bolshevik Zionist world conspirator, it is me – and that is, in fact, how I am increasingly depicted," he wrote in his 1995 book Soros on Soros.
"My original purpose … was to create a society where this kind of conspiracy theory wouldn't flourish; but in the process of advocating an open society, I amassed a sort of mystic power that actually fostered the conspiracy theory. Don't you see the irony?"
We do. And we also see a deeper irony – the one his biographer Anna Porter calls "the inherent contradiction between Soros the billionaire and Soros the philanthropist."
At worst, Mr. Soros has found the hard limits of buying a more equal society with one man's fortune. At best, he has offered himself as a litmus test of intolerance: Say his name – and listen for the response.