On "Shadowy Billionaires," Conspiracy Theories, and Lies

Conservatives' over-the-top attacks on George Soros Mirror Progressives' attacks on the Koch Brothers During the Obama Administration

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


A lot of attention has been paid recently to the role George Soros plays as a bogeyman for conservatives. Soros is seen as a malevolent force with massive influence on progressive politics, and gets blamed for things, like the migrant caravan, that there is little to no evidence he has anything to do with. President Trump hasn't exactly discouraged conspiracy theories about Soros, and Soros has been the subject of wild distortions and out-and-out lies about his past in Nazi-occupied Hungary.

Soros is Jewish, and many have argued that his status as the center of right-wing conspiracy theories is largely a result of anti-Semitism. I certainly can't rule out anti-Semitism as a factor, though it's worth noting that of the top six Democratic/liberal donors these days five including are Jews, and the sixth, Tom Steyer, is an Episcopalean with a Jewish father. So if you're going to demonize "big money" on the left, your non-Jewish options are limited. (The largest Republican donor, Sheldon Adelson, is also Jewish, as are many other major Republican donors, though not to the same extent as for the Democrats.)

The point I want to make here though is that regardless of wheher and to what extent anti-Semitism is a factor in "right-wing" criticism of Soros, ant-Semitism s hardly necessary for conspiracy theories and fabrications about major political donors. In fact, progressive attacks on the Koch Brothers during the Obama Adminsitration also involved lies, conspiracy theories, and the even-more-direct involvement of the White House. If the Koch Brothers were Jewish, the attacks on them (just for example, alleging that their dad was a stooge of the USSR in the 1930s, or that they are "unAmerican" as Harry Reid stated) would sound awfully anti-Semitic.

I think conservatives should stop the exaggerated attacks on Soros even if they are not anti-Semitic, not because they are somehow unique, but because they are "fake news" that just adds to the general current low tone of American politics, just like I objected to and continue to criticize crazy attacks on the Kochs.

My progressive friends consistently deny that the attacks on the Kochs even remotely resemble the vitriol and prevarication about Soros. I discussed the attack on the Kochs in my book Lawless, and reprint the relevant section so you can draw your own conclusions (with some emphasis added):

While denouncing Citizens United in August 2010, President Obama libeled Americans for Prosperity, a pro–free market organization founded by the billionaire libertarian Koch (pronounced "Coke") brothers, Charles and David, owners of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States. Obama said, "Right now all around this country there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads . . . And they don't have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don't know if it's a foreign-controlled corpo-ration." As President Obama well knew, Americans for Prosperity is not a foreign-controlled corporation.

In September, Obama senior advisor David Axelrod declared outright, and in an outright lie, that the "benign-sounding Americans for Prosperity, the American Crossroads fund" are "front groups for foreign-controlled companies." That tactic never got any traction. Even liberal-leaning news organizations pointed out both that Citizens United did not involve foreign corporations, and that it was absurd to allege that American conservative groups were fronts for such corporations.

The Democratic establishment decided that if they were unable to stifle conservative donors through campaign finance legislation, they would do it through other means. Leading Democrats, including the president himself, embarked on an extraordinary, wide-ranging campaign to demonize the Koch brothers. ….

They figured mysterious (because generally adverse to publicity), ominous-sounding (billionaires! involved in the oil industry!) villains on whom to blame their troubles and rouse the passions of their partisans would be useful. Ironically, the Kochs, rightly feeling they had been unfairly attacked, increased their political spending dramatically.

The war on the Kochs started with a hit piece in the New Yorker in August 2010 by Jane Mayer.This was not a purely spontaneous journalistic endeavor by Mayer, but one in part plotted and supported by the very sort of big money politicos Mayer was supposedly exposing. A substantial amount of her research was provided by Lee Fang of ThinkProgress, a Beltway institution with very close ties to the Obama White House and the Democratic establishment. While accusing the Kochs of hiding their activism by "creating slippery organizations with generic-sounding names," Mayer favorably cited slippery left-wing organizations with generic-sounding names that were out to get the Kochs for political reasons, including the Center for Public Integrity, Media Matters, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy….

A few weeks after Mayer's article appeared, Austan Goolsbee, the president's economic advisor, told conference-call participants that "in this country we have partnerships, we have S corps, we have LLCs, we have a series of entities that do not pay corporate income tax. Some of which are really giant firms, you know Koch Industries is a multibillion dollar businesses . . ." Goolsbee said that he thought that Koch Industries was a "pass-through entity," information that he could only have received from the Internal Revenue Service.

IRS disclosure of such information is illegal. The Obama administration, after first falsely suggesting that Goolsbee was relying on publicly available information, later claimed that he had misspoken, and had merely used the Kochs as an inaccurate example of a broader problem. Several years later, Goolsbee claimed that he mistakenly relied on a seven-year-old article about the Kochs' third brother, who has no stake in Koch Indus-tries. Making matters worse, according to Koch Industries' attorney the company does in fact pay income taxes, so whatever information Goolsbee thought he was relying on was false or incomplete. Under congressional pressure, the administration ultimately agreed to conduct an internal investigation into Goolsbee's comment, but it refused to release the results.

The Goolsbee incident taught the Obama administration that it was too risky for it to go after the Kochs directly and have the administration involved in false or exaggerated mudslinging against private citizens. Other parts of the Democratic machine instead took the lead. In September 2010, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed on its website that the Kochs have "funneled their money into right-wing shadow groups." A week later, Representative Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, falsely accused Koch Industries of "outsourcing" and claimed that "they actually got an award for 'outsourcing' to China."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration was quietly encouraging a media blitz against the Kochs. The Huffington Post reported that a senior administration official, speaking to a gathering of reporters, urged them to attack the Kochs….

The Kochs have become the Emmanuel Goldsteins of the Obama administration. Since Mayer's piece came out, they've been blamed for everything from global warming to public school segregation to the proposed Keystone pipeline to Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman to voter ID laws to the battles between the state government and municipal unions in Wisconsin. The underlying accusations were at best exaggerated, and more often were completely false.

The Obama administration was sometimes directly complicit in the attacks on the Kochs. For example, in early 2011 the White House sent Obama for America political operatives to Wisconsin to try to insert the Kochs into media coverage of state political battles. The president's reelection campaign several times mailed fundraising letters attacking the Kochs, in one case depicting them as "plotting oil men" who are bent on "misleading people" with "disinformation" to "smear the President's record." On April 13, 2011, Lee Fang published an article at ThinkProgress falsely accusing the Kochs of illegally manipulating oil and gas prices. By remarkable coincidence (not!), the Obama administration was forming a task force on fraud and manipulation in the gas market at exactly the same time; the task force was formally announced on April 21. Less directly, President Obama, as the head of the Democratic Party, could have ordered the party apparatus to call off its attack dogs. Instead, throughout the 2012 election campaign various Democratic fundraising committees used the Kochs as fundraising bait.

The most egregious and persistent attacks on the Koch brothers came from then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. Beginning in early 2014, he launched almost daily (and often factually inaccurate) verbal assaults on the Kochs, and also established a website dedicated to the Kochs' purported misdeeds. To get an idea of the tenor of the site, a page headlined "meet the Kochs" introduces them as "producers of toxic chemicals, harmful pollutants, carcinogens, greenhouse gases." Among other insults, Reid called the brothers "un-American" and "power-hungry tycoons." He mentioned them in Senate speeches well over one hundred times. When Texas Republican Ted Cruz accused Reid of launching "an unprecedented slander campaign against two private citizens," Reid spokesman Alan Jentleson retorted that Cruz was "rushing to the defense of shadowy billionaires who are rigging our democracy to benefit the wealthy and powerful."