Tom Cotton won't stop tweeting about 'Soros prosecutors.' What does he really mean?


Conservatives are using George Soros as a bogeyman once again, this time blaming the Jewish hedge fund billionaire for the rise in crime nationwide.

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and his Republican colleagues are dusting off an old campaign strategy: blame everything on George Soros.

Soros, 91, is a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor turned hedge fund manager who is worth an estimated $8.6 billion. He has donated more than half of his original fortune to nonprofit organizations, earning him the title of "most generous giver" on the Forbes 400 billionaires list.

Conservatives have long used Soros as a political bogeyman who they argue represents everything wrong with liberal politics and policies. In the past, they have accused Soros of everything from orchestrating the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, to concocting Colin Kaepernick's protest of the national anthem at football games, to bankrolling protesters against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearings.

Now Republican politicians and commentators have started labeling progressive district attorneys "Soros prosecutors," a messaging strategy that experts say is an antisemitic dog whistle.

Cotton has led the conservative attack on Soros and his contributions to public prosecutor races across the country. He has written two National Review pieces lambasting progressive prosecutors and has tweeted the phrase "Soros prosecutor" six times so far this month. On Dec. 6, Cotton shared a tweet about violent crime in Philadelphia with the comment, "This is the deadly cost of putting a Soros prosecutor in charge."

On Dec. 9, a Chicago jury found the actor Jussie Smollett guilty of falsely reporting a hate crime to police in 2019. He faces a sentence of up to three years in prison. Cotton has called for the removal of Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx over her handling of the case. "George Soros gave more than $2 million to elect Kim Foxx," Cotton tweeted the day after the verdict was announced. "Every Soros prosecutor needs to be recalled, removed, and replaced."

Other conservatives have followed suit, especially in the wake of the Waukesha holiday parade tragedy, in which a driver plowed his car into a crowd, killing five people. The alleged driver, Darrell E. Brooks Jr., was released from custody on $1,000 bail shortly before the incident. The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office called the bail limit "inappropriately low" given Brooks' long rap sheet of prior offenses.

There is no record of Soros giving any money to John Chisholm, the Milwaukee County prosecutor involved in the case, according to campaign finance records. But that didn't stop conservatives from leaping on the opportunity to blame the Waukesha tragedy on "Soros-backed prosecutors."

"The Waukesha terrorist is just one of many criminals that Soros-backed prosecutors have released into our cities," Ohio Senate candidate and author J.D. Vance wrote the day after the attack. "It's plainly obvious that the result of his 'philanthropy' is death and crime across America. Time for Congress to investigate."

"This man is just blamed by the right for every kind of activity that they don't like, that they feel is anti-American or anti-white," Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, told the American Independent Foundation.

Conservatives and right-wing conspiracy theorists invoke Soros' name in way that is similar to the way the Rothschilds, the well-known banking family, have often been used by antisemites in claiming there is Jewish domination of global finance. Since the early 20th century, antisemites have referred to the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a fabricated text that purports to show how a powerful Jewish "cabal" secretly controls world affairs.

"There tends to be this identification of the Jew ... with an elite, anti-populist globalism that tries to rot society from the inside," Landon Frim, a philosophy and religion professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, told the American Independent Foundation.

Frim said that conservatives believe Jews "engage in not only capitalist speculation, but also war profiteering and using civil crime as a tool to undermine legitimate state authority."

While Cotton and other conservatives may not allude to Soros in overtly antisemitic terms, blaming all U.S. violent crime on one man would imply the Jewish billionaire enjoys a disproportionate degree of control over Americans' lives.

The criticism is based on Soros' funding of progressives' campaigns for prosecutor positions across the nation to propel reform of the criminal justice system. His dollars have gone toward mainstream liberal reform efforts such as reducing inequitable bail and sentencing policies. 

Similar policies have been pursued across the aisle. The billionaire Koch brothers, funders of conservative causes, led an initiative in partnership with the Trump administration to reduce prison sentence lengths and dramatically reform the criminal justice system.

"Nowhere, even in mainstream conservative opinion media, do you have people saying, 'This is a Koch prosecutor, this is a Trump prosecutor,'" Frim said. "It's always identified with this Jewish hedge fund billionaire."

The "Soros prosecutors" push comes as Republicans have started to ramp up their rhetoric ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. 

Republicans have historically hammered Democrats on crime, perhaps most infamously in the 1988 presidential match-up between Vice President George H.W. Bush, the Republican candidate, and Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Bush ran an ad criticizing Dukakis for allowing Willie Horton, already serving a life sentence for murder, out on furlough, during which he raped a woman and attacked her fiancé.

As crime rates have risen over the last year, Republicans have sought to link Democratic policies to skyrocketing numbers of homicides. In fact, crime has risen all across the country, in cities run by both Republicans and Democrats, as well as in cities that voted to slash their local police budgets and those that bolstered them with additional funding.

Because the GOP's main legislative aim is to obstruct the Democratic agenda, conservatives rely on dog whistles and fear-mongering instead of policy debates, Frim said.

"If you oppose the actual material interests of your voter base ... then you have to appeal to people on basically the level of pathos, of feeling. And the strongest of those is fear — fear that all the criminals are going to be released from prison is deeply motivating," Frim said. "If you can combine that fear with the idea that not only the criminals are going to be released and make your neighborhood dangerous, but that this is being orchestrated by some kind of suspicious, elite, alien force and someone who might not share your cultural and religious identifiers — that's, for some people, even more powerful."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.