The person who aided Netanyahu and Orban in gaining power

Nick Thorpe's interview with George Birnbaum features a close-up of his face

One of the founding fathers of contemporary populism, George Birnbaum, once said, "It's good to have an enemy.". "You won't find someone who is loved by everyone very often. " .

He worked as a political consultant for 30 years, helping Viktor Orban of Hungary and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel win elections in 2010 and 1996, respectively.

He has clients all over the world and currently travels back and forth between Harare, Dubai, and New York.

George Birnbaum developed his reputation as one of "Arthur's kids" under the guidance of his mentor and late business partner Arthur Finkelstein, a brilliant mathematician who reinvented political campaigning in the US and helped many Republican leaders, including Richard Nixon, win the presidency in 1972.

"One should try to make the election as divisive as possible around the issue that best supports your position, i. e. In a memo from 1970, Finkelstein wrote: "Drugs, crime, race in New York State. "You're in trouble when the adversary seizes the polarization initiative. ".

With Benjamin Netanyahu's first election victory in Israel, which occurred only a few months after the assassination of outgoing Prime Minister Shimon Peres' predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, the pair pulled off a stunning upset.

Slogans like "Peres will divide Jerusalem" - in peace talks with the Palestinians - electrified voters.

Was it real, I inquire.

He now says, "I don't think that's true, whether or not it would have been a line down the middle of Jerusalem. However, some municipal properties were mentioned as potentially being transferred to the Palestinian Authority as part of a peace agreement. ".

George Birnbaum stands opposite Benjamin Netanyahu
27 years ago, a younger George Birnbaum (L) assisted in planning Benjamin Netanyahu's election campaign.

They started working for Viktor Orban of Hungary in 2008; in 2010, his right-wing Fidesz party won a resounding victory.

Three years later, with new elections looming, it was decided that Viktor Orban needed a new adversary‚ÄĒsomeone who Hungarians could be made to fear.

Following extensive opinion polling, the two decided that US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, then 85 years old and of Hungarian descent, would make a perfect target. Since then, Viktor Orban has demonized him.

George Birnbaum tells me, "George Soros was a good target.".

"Because enough Hungarians didn't like the idea of this billionaire controlling politics and policy from behind the scenes, almost like the Wizard of Oz. ".

But really did he?

George Soros with his hand on his face, pictured in 2011
George Soros, a US billionaire philanthropist, has recently been the target of anti-Semitic plots.

The year George Birnbaum left Viktor Orban's employ, 2015, the Hungarian prime minister learned of a new foe: Muslim immigrants.

And when George Soros suggested that the EU should accept a large number of asylum seekers in September of that same year, the Hungarian leader quickly signaled "a Soros plan.".

Despite its improbability, the Jewish philanthropist was charged with a plot to replace Christian Europeans with Muslim immigrants, a notion known as "the Great Replacement theory" on the far-right edges of European politics.

In many Hungarians' worldviews, immigrants replaced Jews or Gypsies as the feared "other.". And from Hungary, George Soros's demonization spread across the world.

"Don't be afraid to address your adversaries by name. Never will they have mercy. Think about George Soros for a second," Viktor Orban said to Republicans in 2022 in Texas at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

"I am well acquainted with George Soros. He is my rival. The Hungarian leader informed his American hosts that he does not share any of our beliefs.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban speaks at a Texas conference in August 2022
In Texas last year, Viktor Orban of Hungary spoke to conservative Americans.

The wife of George Birnbaum is Ukrainian, and the couple frequently travels to the country as close friends of Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv.

I draw attention to the fact that Vladimir Putin of Russia, who sent troops into Ukraine last year, has declared that liberalism is no longer relevant. The Russian leader doesn't miss an opportunity to rail against multiculturalism, immigration, human rights, and the liberal West's degeneration.

That is the West, right? That is the West that George Soros supports.

George Birnbaum claims that the conflict in Ukraine "has reminded us why freedom matters, and why democracy matters.".   .

He claims that if he ran into George Soros on the street, he would invite him out for a drink. We disagree on a lot of issues, but I'd like to know where we share the same outlook on the future of Western and liberal democracy. ".

"I have a problem with both extremes, whether it be the left's progressive liberalism or the right's extreme right-wing isolationist conservatism at the moment. ".

As for Viktor Orban, he claims that it has been almost ten years since their last conversation. When they first met, he thought of him as "a very intellectually smart person, someone who had a deep knowledge of the economy, and that's rare," and he admired him for that.

He now feels that Viktor Orban has ruled for too long.

The Hungarian president said that "every immigrant is a potential terrorist" in January 2015. He had stated to his followers in July 2022 that "we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.".

Dozens of migrants gesture as they stand in the main Eastern Railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on 1 September 2015.
Hungary, which experienced an influx of migrants and refugees in 2015, has responded favorably to Viktor Orban's anti-immigrant message.

Both of these statements are strongly contested by George Birnbaum.

What is the remedy for the political polarization his detractors claim he fosters?

"The best leaders are those who keep us focused on our shared objectives rather than our differences. Making sure that people's hopes and dreams are realized is what it's all about, he says, not any particular ideology.

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