The Open Society Foundations knows a thing or two about standing up to strongman leaders, as well as the darkest strains of human nature. Its earliest grants went to oppose totalitarian regimes in the communist bloc during the 1980s, and in recent decades, it has challenged autocrats worldwide. It’s also long bankrolled efforts to counter intolerance both in the United States and abroad, giving billions for work to strengthen human rights and civil liberties.
In other words, no foundation brings deeper experience to the challenge of confronting a Donald Trump presidency than OSF. What’s more, few foundations have as much on the line in terms of defending past accomplishments. To take one example, OSF’s patient efforts over two decades to soften Draconian drug laws and criminal justice policies has lately yielded big gains. But Trump’s hardline pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, seems determined to roll back that progress. OSF is also a top backer of the many advocacy groups across the United States that are now on the front lines of a spike in hate crimes. One of its longtime grantees, the Southern Poverty Law Center, says it has received over 700 reports of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since November 8.
This is a critical moment for the foundation, and since Trump’s election two weeks ago, it has mobilized for battle. Last week, George Soros, who’s worth $25 billion, huddled with other top progressive donors in Washington to ponder next steps. And while it’s too early to say what the foundation’s larger strategy will be in the age of Trump—or what, exactly, Trump policies might look like—OSF is taking immediate action to combat the wave of hatred and intimidation that’s followed the election. On Wednesday, OSF announced a $10 million rapid-response initiative to “support, protect, and empower those who are targets of hateful acts and rhetoric.” The goal is to “bolster communities’ ability to resist the spread of hate and strengthen protections for their most vulnerable neighbors.”
OSF president Chris Stone told me that the spike in hate incidents and fear has been felt viscerally at the foundation. “This was very personal and identifiable,” he said. “We were seeing the fear in our own staff in New York. It doesn’t take a lot incidents to create a lot of fear.”
While Stone was shocked by Trump’s election along with everyone else, he hasn’t been shocked by the reactionary surge that followed. A very similar spike in hate incidents followed the Brexit vote in England, he said, and OSF was closely involved in coping with the aftermath there. “We’re one of the only foundations that has a big European as well as American focus,” Stone said. “We were able to see the patterns because of that international frame. This wasn’t the start of something surprising. This was part of another pattern that we’ve been covering.”
One thing OSF learned from the Brexit aftermath is that the post-election spike in hate incidents wasn’t likely to disappear in a week or two. After Brexit, it went on for some two months, and when the surge subsided, such incidents continued at a higher rate than before Brexit.
These lessons helped shape OSF’s decision to create the new rapid-response initiative. As well, Stone says that George Soros “was personally moved and affected by the individual attacks,” and strongly wants to see immediate action.
The foundation will share more specifics about its anti-hate initiative by December 1, in terms of how to apply for grants. It’s intent on getting money out the door quickly at a moment of intense anxiety among advocates, especially those working with immigrant and Muslim communities. Grants will be handled through a special streamlined process aimed at expediting assistance to the groups that need resources most urgently. As with much of OSF’s grantmaking, the foundation will support both grassroots activities and policy work aimed at influencing federal, state, and local officials.
Stone stressed to me that the local component of this grantmaking is especially important. While many funders have focused on strengthening national groups like the ACLU, OSF wants to make sure that local advocates also have the resources “to act” in their own communities. “We thought it was important not to try to solve this problem from the top down.”
Looking ahead, Stone sees this anti-hate grantmaking as helping build up a national movement that will be active in coming months and years.
In a blog post a few day ago, Stone said that it was critical to influence public debates and policy between now and inauguration day. OSF wants to catalyze an outpouring of support for “human rights, equality, the rule of law, and an inclusive society” over the next two months, as well as see the Obama administration take steps to strengthen the prohibition against torture before leaving office. Last week, James Goldston called on the administration to publish the full version of the report on torture of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, many parts of which have never been made public, and also said that “the Department of Justice must begin prosecutions of those responsible for systematic torture and detainee abuse.” Goldston’s idea is that shining a harsh spotlight on the shame and criminality of torture during the last days of the Obama era will send a powerful message to the incoming Trump administration. (Although torture is another issue where Trump has lately backpedalled from his harsh campaign rhetoric.)
The larger point is that OSF’s leaders are intent on being proactive during this fleeting period before Trump takes office. Stone wrote: “Given the terrifying rhetoric of the campaign, it would be folly simply to wait and see what steps the new administration takes. The writing has been on the wall all year, and history is full of examples when hesitation at such moments proved prologue to tragedy.”
Still, even as OSF girds for the worst, Stone is careful not to make predictions as to what the future may hold or assume that the bleakest scenarios will come to pass. He stresses that it’s too early to say what policies a Trump administration will pursue on a range of issues of deep interest to OSF.
Whatever happens, Stone and OSF will keep an eye on the larger global uptick of right-wing populist movements and autocratic rule. As I wrote earlier this year, the foundation has seen its grantees worldwide come under new pressures amid rising attacks on civil society groups, dissidents, and independent media. Even before Brexit and Trump’s election, OSF was stepping up efforts to push back against the reactionary politics now gaining ground in many countries.
What was hard to anticipate a year or so ago is how urgent such defense work would become in the world’s most advanced countries, including in America. Stone wrote: “The success of Trump’s populist campaign links the United States to a global trend in which truth is trashed, fear is exploited, and democracies are transformed into mafia states.”