A propaganda campaign in Hungary reached its climax in July 2017 when billboards across the country carried adverts for the latest round of the Orbán government's National Consultation. The adverts featured the head of George Soros, with the text: “Let's not allow Soros to have the last laugh!" – bearing the implication that the businessman was about to attack Hungary.
The attacks on the Hungarian-born American billionaire have gone on relentlessly ever since, but little had been known about the background to the campaign. Now, however, one of the men behind its conception, George Birnbaum, has given an interview to Magazin, a weekend supplement of several Swiss newspapers. He described how he and Arthur Finkelstein together found the perfect enemy for Fidesz.
The Finkelstein method
George Eli Birnbaum was born in 1970 in Los Angeles to a father who had survived the Holocaust. In the 1990s he met the well known Republican campaign guru Arthur Finkelstein and became one of "Finkelstein's Kids", who learnt their craft of organising effective political campaigns from the master.
Finkelstein had started out as a computer programmer working in the world of finance, and he relied heavily on the results of opinion polls in the campaigns that he led.
"Everything that Arthur did was based on numbers. No one could read read numbers like Arthur."
He didn't just gather the age, place of residence and political views of the respondents from the numbers, but also noticed important patterns. He realised early on what people are afraid of: drugs, crime and skin colour that differs from their own. Finkelstein thought that you could get the best results by turning voters against each other, particularly though fear.
"You have to bring up subjects that people are afraid of, and present the danger as coming from the Left," he wrote to President Richard Nixon in 1972.
The campaign specialist recognised the power of negative campaigning – continually attacking your opponent rather than publicising your own policies.
Finkelstein thought that every election has already been decided by the time the people cast their vote. Most people know from the start who they are going to vote for, and it is hard to make them change their minds. What you have to do it demoralise them.
This was a form of "voter suppression" and has become the favoured approach of modern right-wing populists around the globe. In recent years it has featured in campaigns from Hungary to the US.
Finkelstein drew on these ideas to develop a very effective form of negative campaigning, termed "rejectionist voting”. This involved singling out an enemy who can be constantly attacked and blamed for everything that voters think is bad, to the point that their own voters lose faith in them.
Finkelstein assumed that the opponent would try to react to these attacks, which would only serve to link their face with the attacks against them in the minds of the voters. The more surprising and shocking the attacks, the more likely the media would pick up the stories and spread them.
Finkelstein took the method he had developed in America out into the international political market and in 1996 he played a key role in Benjamin Netanyahu’s election triumph. In 2006 Finkelstein and Birnbaum set up a company to target Eastern Europe, where they helped Calin Popescu-Tariceanu win in Romania and Sergei Stanishev in Bulgaria. Then in 2008 Netanyahu introduced them to his old friend Viktor Orbán.
The perfect enemy
Their cooperation with Orbán’s party, Fidesz, which was in opposition at the time, worked so well that in that very same year they succeeding in getting a favourable result for Fidesz in the social referendum and had set Orbán on the road to victory in the 2010 elections.
Birnbaum told the Swiss magazine that officially they signed a one-year contract with the Századvég Foundation, which is close to Fidesz.
“We had swept the Socialists off the table before the election had even begun,” he said, and even now, 10 years one he finds it hard to believe how easy it had been. In the next campaign they needed a new target. The timing was perfect. In the wake of the financial crisis the country had to be bailed out and Hungary's creditors, the World Bank, the EU and the IMF, demanded austerity measures. So the new enemy was “financial capital” and “foreign bureaucrats”. It all worked perfectly.
However, after the Fidesz victories in 2010 and 2014 the Socialists and the far-right Jobbik were no longer a threat and so could not be presented as the big enemy, and financial capital had been defeated too. They had to look elsewhere.
“Arthur always said that the Allies in the war were fighting not against the Nazis but against Hitler, and the Americans waged war not on Al-Qaeda but against Osama bin Laden,” Birnbaum said, quoting his mentor.
So they had to find a face that embodied the enemy, one they could incite the voters against. Their final choice result grew from two lines of thought.
One strand was Orbán's obsession with creating an alternative and more dramatic historical narrative for Hungary. He was assisted here by Mária Schmidt, the director of the House of Terror in Budapest. She drew a picture of Hungary – when it made its pact with Hitler – as an innocent victim surrounded by enemies, boldly protecting its identity. In Schmidt's view the Hungarian nation has always been under siege, whether by the Ottomans, the Nazis or the Communists, and Hungary's task is to fight against outside influence and to defend Christianity.
The other strand, Birnbaum said, was a continuance of the notion that the financial capital was attacking Hungary.
They needed a figure who not only directs dangerous foreign capital, but embodies it too - and that was George Soros, the perfect enemy, the shadowy background power who was attacking Hungary.
A source told Magazin that opinion polls were used to see if Soros was sufficiently well known to voters to build a negative campaign on him. Birnbaum did not confirm this, but he did say that Orbán completely trusted Finkelstein, and it was not hard to convince him that Soros should be the new enemy. Magazin asked the Prime Minister’s spokesman to confirm this, but he did not want to comment.
One former Fidesz opinion poll researcher said: “ No one was more important than Finkelstein for Orbán’s policies, and Finkelstein had no better pupil than Orbán.”
Soros proved the perfect enemy. First, you could stick the “liberal” tag on him; second, he represented what conservatives hate most in successful left-wingers: he was a financial speculator who likes a milder form of capitalism; and thirdly, he was not active in politics, so had no political means to strike back – he did not even live in the country.
Birnbaum is clearly still proud of their creation.
“It was so obvious. Of all our products this was the simplest. We just had to package it and market it.
The campaign against Soros began on 14 August 2013 when the government-friendly weekly Heti Válasz published an article attacking the NGOs that were allegedly being directed by George Soros. This marked the beginning of the conspiracy theory spread by the government and the government-friendly media that Soros was attacking Hungary. Then the government fell upon the Ökotárs Foundation, seized its computers and temporarily froze the payments of Swiss-Hungarian civil funds. Even though the search did not find anything, the nightmare vision of "dangerous NGOs" has persisted.
The next instalment of the propaganda was helped by the migrant crisis, and an essay Soros wrote forecasting that in the near future one million refugees would arrive every year in the EU. This is what the government propaganda later called the "Soros plan". In this way George Soros became the big demon of Hungary, accused by Fidesz of wanting to flood Europe and Hungary with refugees.
At the end of 2015 the two targets merged: any civil organisation that received money from the Soros-linked Open Society Foundation was being directed by Soros himself, and those who worked in those organisations were "mercenaries" paid for by foreign powers. It was but a small step from here to copy Vladimir Putin, who had closed down a Soros-financed university in St Petersburg, and attack the Central European University in Budapest. Then came the countrywide hate campaign on the billboards, and the job was done: Soros's popularity fell and he had become the devil incarnate.
The Finkelstein trap meant that the billionaire himself couldn't do anything in response to these attacks. "Any attempt to refute the attacks would just have confirmed the charge that he was interfering in politics," Birnbaum explains. In fact Soros had no intention of getting involved in Hungarian politics.
Officially Fidesz has never admitted that the Americans helped them. Viktor Orbán's spokesman said in 2015 that neither Fidesz not the government had ever paid Finkelstein, they simply talked to him. Be that as it may, in that same year Finkelstein and the Prime Minister's adviser, Árpád Habony, set up a joint company in London, which Habony took over after the American died in 2017.
The Hungarian model
The Finkelstein-Birnbaum pair had created such a good product that it sold around the world. From Columbia to Israel, Kenya and as far as Australia anti-Soros noises were heard. In Italy in 2017 fanciful stories started spreading about refugee ships funded by Soros. In 2018 President Trump declared that the migrant caravans heading for the US-Mexican border were sponsored by Soros.
In his conversation with the author of the article, Hannes Grassegger, Birnbaum denied that he had anything to do with the anti-Soros campaigns outside Hungary. But he did not need to, the journalist pointed out, since he and Finkelstein had created such a strong and effective target that it was accessible and easily to adapt all round the world.
The question also arose as to whether there was an anti-Semitic aspect of the attacks on Soros, a point that has frequently been raised. The phantom enemy which the two Jewish men, Finkelstein and Birnbaum, had created had an eery similarity to an old anti-Semitic trope, the wicked, greedy Jew hungry for world domination, the Magazin pointed out. Birnbaum, who practises his faith. firmly rejected the idea that he had any role in an anti-Semitic campaign.
"When we came up with the idea, it never occurred to us for a minute that Soros was Jewish."
In fact, he said, he did not even know that about the billionaire. He adds that he would never work with anti-Semites. He had asked around about what Orbán felt about Jews and he had not heard anything to cause him concern.
"If someone is Jewish, does that mean I cannot attack him?" Asked the campaign consultant.
Grassegger noted that Soros's name was familiar long before either Birnbaum or Finkelstein. In addition, in one campaign in the 1980s Finkelstein had turned the anti-Semitic views of the voters to the benefit of one candidate, and was even willing as a homosexual to act as adviser to politicians such as Jesse Helms, who opposed gay rights.
The article notes that in recent times anti-Semitic attacks have been on the increase, but Birnbaum does not feel in any way responsible for that.
"Our campaign did not make anyone anti-Semitic who wasn't that before. At most, we showed them a new victim, but no more than that. I wouldn't do anything differently."