On a clammy Tuesday morning in Paris at the end of May, George Soros, the world's second-most-vilified New York billionaire (but worth many billions more than the other one), is addressing the European Council on Foreign Relations, an organisation he helped found a decade ago. Described by the woman who introduces him as a "European at heart", the Hungarian-born Soros, who made his fortune running a hedge fund and is now a full-time philanthropist, political activist and freelance statesman, is here to share his thoughts on salvaging the European Union. Wearing a dark suit, tieless and with the collar of his blue shirt outside the lapel of his jacket, Soros takes the stage with the determined stride of an 88-year-old who still plays tennis a few times a week. But there are some concessions to age. He gives his speech sitting down and uses a desk lamp to illuminate the text. He turns the pages with his right hand while keeping his left hand on his left knee, as if propping himself up. There are moments when he seems on the verge of losing his place, although he never does. He barely acknowledges the audience, which includes the president of Serbia and the prime minister of Albania, except to say, "I think this is the right place to discuss how to save Europe". But apart from urging the European Union to direct more aid to Africa, which he says would ameliorate the refugee crisis that has led to so much of the recent political upheaval in Europe, his remarks are more descriptive than prescriptive. The European Union, he says, faces an "existential crisis". Briefly touching on Europe's economic outlook, he says, "We may be heading for another major financial crisis". Partly in response to his warning, the Dow Jones Index on Wall Street falls nearly 400 points that day. Soros is generally considered the greatest speculator Wall Street has known, and though he stopped managing other people's money years ago, the reaction is a real-time display of his continued ability to move markets. The attention given to that comment also underscores, in a subtle way, an enduring frustration of his life: his financial thoughts still tend to carry more weight than his political reflections. Yet the political realm is where Soros has made his most audacious wager. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the former Soviet-bloc countries to promote civil society and liberal democracy. It was a private initiative without historical precedent. It was also a gamble that a part of the world that had mostly known tyranny would embrace ideas like government accountability and ethnic tolerance. In London in the 1950s, Soros was a student of the expatriated Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, who championed the notion of an "open society", in which individual liberty, pluralism and free inquiry prevailed. Popper's concept became Soros's cause. It is an embattled cause these days. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has reverted to autocracy, and Poland and Hungary are moving in the same direction. With the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, where Soros is a major donor to Democratic candidates and progressive groups, and the growing strength of right-wing populist parties in Western Europe, Soros's vision of liberal democracy is under threat in its longtime strongholds. Nationalism and tribalism are resurgent, barriers are being raised and borders reinforced and Soros is confronting the possibility that the goal to which he has devoted most of his wealth and the last chapter of his life will end in failure. Not only that: he also finds himself in the unsettling position of being the designated villain of this anti-globalisation backlash, his Judaism and career in finance rendering him a made-to-order phantasm for reactionaries worldwide. "I'm standing for principles whether I win or lose," Soros says. But, he continues, "unfortunately, I'm losing too much in too many places right now." The night before his speech in Paris, I dine with Soros in his suite at the Bristol Hotel, where he usually stays, one of the city's most elegant addresses, conveniently located just up the street from the Elysées Palace (although on this trip Soros had no plans to see France's President, Emmanuel Macron, whom he knows and admires). An aide takes me up to the suite and ushers me into the dining room, where Soros is already seated at the table with his wife, Tamiko (Soros has been married three times and has five children – though that is where the similarities to Donald Trump end). It's after 8.30pm, but he seems eager for conversation. He speaks slowly, in a still-thick Hungarian accent, moving his cupped hand in a semicircle as if summoning his words. As we talk over a first course of tomato and avocado salad, a thunderstorm sweeps across Paris, rattling the windows. One especially violent thunderclap strikes as we're discussing Russia. "That's Putin," an aide jokes. In 2015, Putin expelled Soros's philanthropic organisation, the Open Society Foundations (OSF), from Russia, claiming it was a security threat, and Russian state media churn out a steady flow of anti-Soros content. Paris was the first stop for Soros on a month-long spring trip to Europe. He normally visits Budapest, but not this time. Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, a former Soros protégé, was re-elected in April after running a campaign in which he effectively made Soros his opponent. Orban accused Soros, who is an American citizen, of plotting to overwhelm Hungary with Muslim immigrants in order to undermine its Christian heritage. He attacked Soros during campaign rallies, and his government plastered the country with anti-Soros billboards. In the aftermath of the election, the OSF announced that it was closing its Budapest office because of concerns for the safety of its employees. The fate of the Soros-founded Central European University, based in Budapest, is also in doubt. Soros says he couldn't visit Hungary under present circumstances: "It would be toxic." He tells me that Orban's campaign was "a big disappointment", but quickly adds, "I think I must be doing something right to look at who my enemies are." Last northern autumn, he signalled that same sense of defiance when he announced that he was in the process of transferring the bulk of his remaining wealth, $US18 billion at the time, to the OSF. That will potentially make it the second-largest philanthropic organisation in the US, in assets, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is already a sprawling entity, with some 1800 employees in 35 countries, a global advisory board, eight regional boards and 17 issue-oriented boards. Its annual budget of around $US1 billion finances projects in education, public health, independent media, immigration and criminal-justice reform and other areas. Organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood are among its grantees. Soros originally planned to close the OSF in 2010. He didn't want it to outlive him, because he feared it might then lose its dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit. But he changed his mind when he realised that, as he put it, "I had more money than I can realistically or usefully spend in my lifetime." He also saw that, with liberal values and civil society fragile in so many places, the OSF's work was becoming ever more essential. "I found a mission, a niche, that I felt could be carried on," he says as we finish dinner. According to Soros, 1944 was the formative year of his life. The Nazis invaded Hungary and immediately began deporting Jews. To save his family, his father, Tivadar Soros, a lawyer, obtained false identities for George, who was then 13, and his older brother, Paul. One day, George was ordered to deliver summonses on behalf of the Jewish Council. Tivadar, recognising that they were essentially deportation notices, instructed his son to tell the recipients not to heed them. Soon after, Tivadar arranged for Paul to move into a rented room and sent George to live with a Hungarian agricultural official, who passed him off as his Christian godson. The official's job included taking inventory of a confiscated Jewish-owned property; he took George with him. These episodes have become the basis for the claim that George was a Nazi collaborator. In fact, though, there is no credible evidence that he collaborated with or was sympathetic to the Nazis. George, his brother and his parents all survived the war. Soros says that he came out of the experience with a strong defiant streak, a contempt for tribalism and a propensity to side with the oppressed. In 1946, as Communists were rising to power in Hungary, Soros fled to England. He earned a degree from the London School of Economics, where Karl Popper was a professor. In 1945, Popper published a political treatise, The Open Society and Its Enemies, a fierce assault on totalitarianism, in both its fascist and Marxist forms, and a ringing defence of liberal democracy. Soros left Popper's classroom with not only the idea that would later animate his philanthropy but also the desire to live a life of the mind. He had to make money first, though. When he moved to New York in 1956 to take a job on Wall Street, his goal, he tells me, was to sock away $US100,000 in five years, which would allow him to quit finance and turn to scholarly pursuits. But instead, he quips during our dinner, "I overperformed." In 1969, Soros formed what would become the Quantum Fund. It was one of a new breed of investment vehicles known as hedge funds, which catered to institutional investors and wealthy individuals and which used leverage – borrowed money – to make huge bets on stocks, bonds, currencies and commodities. Quantum was wildly successful from its start, delivering 40 per cent annual returns. Soros would later attribute his knack for playing the markets to what he called his "theory of reflexivity" – basically, the idea that people's biases and perceptions can move prices in directions that don't accord with the underlying reality. Soros claimed his strength as an investor was in recognising and acting on what he referred to as "far from equilibrium" moments. By the late 1970s, Soros had become a very wealthy man. Now he had the means to make himself an agent of history. He was frank about his ambition, though also self-deprecating. As he wrote in his 1991 book, Underwriting Democracy: "I was a confirmed egoist but I considered the pursuit of self-interest as too narrow a base for my rather inflated self. If truth be known, I carried some rather potent messianic fantasies with me from childhood which I felt I had to control, otherwise they might get me into trouble. But when I had made my way in the world I wanted to indulge my fantasies to the extent that I could afford." He decided that his goal would be opening closed societies. He created a philanthropic organisation, then called the Open Society Fund, in 1979 and began sponsoring college scholarships for black South African students. But he soon turned his attention to Eastern Europe, where he started financing dissident groups. He funnelled money to the Solidarity trade union strikers in Poland in 1981 and to Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. In one especially ingenious move, he sent hundreds of Xerox copiers to Hungary to make it easier for underground publications to disseminate their newsletters. In the late 1980s, he provided dozens of Eastern European students with scholarships to study in the West, with the aim of fostering a generation of liberal democratic leaders. One of those students was Viktor Orban, who studied civil society at Oxford. From his Manhattan trading desk, Soros became a strange sort of expat anticommunist revolutionary. In the meantime, Quantum grew into a multibillion-dollar colossus. Soros made his most famous trade in 1992, when he bet against the British pound. The currency was vulnerable because it had been pegged at what seemed an unsustainably high rate against the German mark; with the UK in recession, Soros reasoned, the British government would ultimately choose to see the pound devalued rather than maintain the high interest rates needed to defend it from speculative investors. Soros's terse command to his head trader, Stanley Druckenmiller, was to "go for the jugular". Druckenmiller did, and on Wednesday, September 16 – Black Wednesday, as it came to be known – the Bank of England stopped trying to prop up the pound's value. It promptly sank against the mark, falling out of Europe's Exchange Rate Mechanism and dealing a setback to the push for greater European integration. The sterling crisis turned hedge funds into the glamorous rogues of finance and demonstrated the punitive power that they could wield against policymakers in a world of freeflowing capital. The trade made $US1.5 billion for Quantum, and Soros, whom the British tabloids dubbed "the man who broke the Bank of England", became a household name. By then, the Soviet empire had collapsed, and Soros was devoting huge sums of his own money to try to smooth its transition from Communist rule. For example, he donated $US100 million to support Russian scientists and keep them from selling their services to countries that were hostile to the West; he spent $US250 million on a program to revise Russian textbooks and train teachers to promote critical thinking. While the era was one of Western triumphalism, when it was widely assumed that Russia and other newly freed countries would inevitably embrace liberal democracy – a view most famously expressed in American political scientist Francis Fukuyama's 1989 essay, "The End of History" – Soros did not share that certitude. This part of the world had little tradition of civil society and liberal democracy, and in his view these needed to be nurtured if the region was to avoid backsliding into autocracy. "I generally have a bias to see the darkest potential," he says. "It is something that I have practised in the financial markets to very good effect, and I have transferred it to politics." During the 1990s, Soros toggled between his day job and his philanthropy, and it was not always easy to disentangle his dual roles. For a time, Quantum and OSF were run out of the same offices. In December 1992, three months after his bet against the British pound, Soros announced a $US50 million donation to build a water-treatment facility in war-ravaged Sarajevo, and it was hard not to see that money as having been sucked straight from the British Treasury. Soros once described his bifurcated existence rather graphically, writing that he "felt like a giant digestive tract, taking in money at one end and pushing it out at the other". If that was the case, indigestion was inevitable, and it came in 1997, when Quantum was at the centre of a speculative attack on the Thai baht. The episode was a nearly identical reprise of what happened to the British pound. (Quantum made roughly $US750 million this time.) There was one critical difference, however: while Britain was a major industrialised country that ultimately had little trouble absorbing the blow to its currency, Thailand was an emerging economy for which the consequences were devastating. Economic output plunged, banks and businesses folded and huge numbers of people were thrown out of work. The baht crisis rippled into other Asian economies. Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, called Soros and other speculators "unscrupulous profiteers" whose immoral work served no social value. Soros publicly rejected the criticism, but when investors took aim at the Indonesian rupiah later in 1997, Quantum was not among them. Nor did it join other hedge funds when they targeted the Russian rouble the following year. Having already invested hundreds of millions of dollars trying to stabilise Russia, Soros would have been undercutting his own work by betting against the Russian currency. He ended up taking a $US400 million loss. "That was where the crossroads between the philanthropist and the investor became difficult," says Rob Johnson, a longtime Soros associate who worked as a portfolio manager at Quantum in the 1990s. But by then, according to Johnson, the only reason that Soros was still running a hedge fund was to generate more money for his causes. In a 1994 speech to university students and faculty in the Eastern European nation of Moldova, Soros described in strikingly personal terms why he became a political philanthropist. His objective, he said, was to make Hungary "a country from which I wouldn't want to emigrate". To that end, he showered Hungary with money and resources in the years after the Berlin Wall fell. In the early 1990s, the OSF gave $US5 million to a program that offered free breakfasts to Hungarian schoolchildren. It spent millions to modernise Hungary's healthcare system. In all, Soros has funded around $US400 million worth of projects in Hungary since 1989 – and that figure doesn't include the initial $US250 million that he gave to endow Central European University, which opened in Prague in 1991, moved to Budapest two years later and has since graduated more than 14,000 students drawn from across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soros also cultivated a number of young activists he believed could advance his dream of remaking Hungary as a place he would never again feel compelled to leave. Among them was Viktor Orban, a bright, charismatic student who was ardently pro-democracy, or so it seemed. In addition to providing Orban with a scholarship at Oxford, Soros donated money to Fidesz (the Alliance of Young Democrats), a student organisation that Orban helped found and that evolved into his political party. But during the 1990s, Orban drifted to the right. Elected prime minister in 1998, he governed as a mainstream conservative, emphasising patriotism and traditional values. Outwardly, he remained pro-Western. Under his leadership, Hungary entered NATO, and he also laid the groundwork for its admission to the European Union. But a shock defeat in the 2002 election seemed to radicalise Orban. When he reclaimed the prime minister's office in 2009, he began ruthlessly consolidating power. He packed the courts with Fidesz loyalists, and various independent media were bought out by Orban supporters. At the same time, he turned away from the West and drew close to Vladimir Putin. Orban was re-elected in 2014. The following year, the European refugee crisis hit. Tens of thousands of refugees passed through the Balkans and arrived on Hungary's border. Orban's government erected a 175-kilometre fence in order to keep them out, and it later refused to comply with a European Union quota plan that would have required it to take in asylum-seekers. Groups that received financial support from the OSF were providing assistance to the refugees massed along Hungary's border, and this became a pretext for Orban's war on Soros. The Hungarian Parliament enacted legislation requiring non-government organisations to register with the government and disclose foreign sources of income above a certain threshold; it passed a bill that would have stripped Central European University of the right to award diplomas in Hungary. Orban's government introduced what it called the "Stop Soros" bill, making it a crime to assist illegal immigrants. (Parliament passed the bill in June.) Given that Orban ran and won on a xenophobic platform, it seems fair to wonder if Soros's work in Hungary – and in much of Eastern Europe – was doomed from the start. With Putinism and Orbanism on the rise and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaching, there is renewed debate about the import of the events of 1989 and whether Russians, Poles and Hungarians really intended to embrace the full menu of Western liberal values. Francis Fukuyama is among those who have doubts today. "There's now a lot of evidence that a lot of that turn toward liberal democracy in the early days, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, really was driven by a kind of educated, very pro-Western elite," he says. But less-educated people who lived outside large urban areas "didn't really buy into liberalism, this idea that you could actually have a multiracial, multi-ethnic society where all these traditional communal values would have to give way to gay marriage and immigrants and all this stuff. That they definitely did not buy into." Soros became a major political donor in the US during George W. Bush's presidency. Angered by what he saw as an effort by the Bush administration to use the war on terror to stoke fear and stifle dissent, he began donating vast sums to Democratic candidates and progressive causes. He helped fund the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, as well as MoveOn.org, and spent more than $US20 million backing John Kerry's unsuccessful bid to deny Bush a second term in 2004. Soros was an early backer of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. In Paris, Soros tells me that Obama was "actually my greatest disappointment". Prompted by an aide, he immediately qualifies himself, saying that he hadn't been disappointed by Obama's presidency but felt let down on a professional level. While he had no desire for a formal role in the administration, he had hoped that Obama would seek his counsel, especially on financial and economic matters. Instead, he was frozen out. After Obama was elected, "he closed the door on me", Soros says. "He made one phone call thanking me for my support, which was meant to last for five minutes, and I engaged him, and he had to spend another three minutes with me, so I dragged it out to eight minutes." He suggested that he had fallen victim to an Obama personality trait. "He was someone who was known from the time when he was competing for the editorship of the Harvard Law Review to take his supporters for granted and to woo his opponents," Soros says. During the 2016 election cycle, Soros contributed more than $US25 million to Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates and causes. While he had foreseen the possibility of a Trump-like figure emerging ("The American public has proven remarkably susceptible to the manipulation of truth, which increasingly dominates the country's political discourse," he wrote in The Guardian in 2007), he was as surprised as everyone else that the Trump-like figure turned out to be Donald Trump. Soros tells me that he knew Trump casually and had even socialised with him. (About 30 years ago, a friend of Soros's dated one of Trump's senior people, and they all went out for dinner a few times.) "I had no idea he had any political ambition," Soros says. Trump tried to coax him into becoming the lead tenant in one of his commercial buildings, he says. "I told him I couldn't afford it," Soros recalls with a chuckle. He says he'd been "very afraid" that Trump would "blow up the world rather than suffer a setback to his narcissism" but was pleased that the president's ego had instead led him to reach out to North Korea. "I think the danger of nuclear war has been greatly reduced, and that's a big relief." It is the extremism of the Republican Party that has prompted him to become a major Democratic donor, he says; he wants the Republican Party to reform itself into a more moderate party. He says he is not especially partisan himself: "I don't particularly want to be a Democrat." If Soros views his relationship with the Democratic Party as mostly transactional, for some Democrats the feeling appears to be mutual. While his money is welcome and needed, there seems to be a certain ambivalence about Soros within Democratic circles. It is partly because of his outspokenness. As Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime Democratic strategist, puts it, "The best donors are silent donors; not talking is good." A bigger issue is that the Democratic Party remains committed to campaign-finance reform and abhors the effect that the Citizens United decision has had on American politics. That 2010 Supreme Court ruling gave billionaires like Soros the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. Kamarck says that in the post-Citizens United world, Democrats "can't unilaterally disarm" and spurn donations from plutocrats like Soros, but they are conflicted about billionaire donors in a way that the Republicans are not. Although Soros is squarely on the left on many issues – he supports a single-payer healthcare system and is a longtime advocate of criminal-justice reform – some on the left have long been dubious of him. In the 1990s, he was portrayed by the far left as an agent of American imperialism, helping to foist the so-called neoliberal agenda (mass privatisation, for example) on Eastern Europe. For some critics, Soros's Wall Street background has always been a mark against him. There is also discomfort with his philanthropy – not its goals, certainly, but what it is seen to represent. Soros is at the vanguard of what has come to be known as "philanthrocapitalism," essentially large-scale social investing by billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Soros. (Last year Forbes magazine ranked Soros the 20th-richest American.) To those who object, this represents the privatisation of social policy and, through the substantial tax benefits that charitable donations receive, it deprives the public sector of money that could be used to promote social welfare. When I ask Soros to describe himself ideologically, he laughs. "My ideology is nonideological," he says. "I'm in the club of nonclubs." When I suggest that "centre-left" might characterise his views, he demurs; he says it isn't clear where he stands now because the left has moved further left, a development that does not please him. "I'm opposed to the extreme left," he says. "It should stop trying to keep up with the extremists on the right." Britain's vote in 2016 to leave the EU was a personal blow to Soros, an Anglophile but also a staunch supporter of European integration. Afterward, he donated more than $US500,000 to a group called Best for Britain that plans to push for a second referendum to undo Brexit. In response, Norman Lamont, who was chancellor of the Exchequer during the 1992 pound-devaluation crisis and, as such, the person on the losing end of Soros's most celebrated trade, told a reporter, "George Soros is a brilliant financier, but he should stick to finance and stay out of British politics." Even if you concede that policymakers are ultimately to blame for the income inequality hat has fuelled so much of the current backlash against globalisation, the financial sector has had a major role in worsening it, and hedge-fund titans like Soros are powerful symbols of that inequality. And while Soros has written very candidly and persuasively about the pitfalls of casino capitalism – most notably in a 1997 Atlantic essay, subsequently expanded into a book called The Crisis of Global Capitalism, in which he acknowledged the destabilising effect of financial markets – that doesn't make him any less of a symbol. Soros says if he hadn't gone after the British pound or the Thai baht, someone else would have. That is unquestionably true (and in fact, Quantum was not the only hedge fund targeting those currencies) but it's not a particularly satisfying answer, and certainly not after the global financial crisis, in which investment banks and hedge funds played such a destructive role. The industry that made him a billionaire contributed significantly to the circumstances that now imperil what Soros the philanthropist is trying to achieve. On the other hand, if Soros's riches had gone to someone else, would that person have put the money to the same use? It might have gone to a noble cause, but almost certainly not to something as ambitious and quixotic – or as dangerous – as the promotion of liberal values and democracy. Setting aside all of the complications that come with being Soros, would you rather live in the world that he has tried to create, or in the world that Orban and, for that matter, Trump seem to be pushing us toward? In early July, I visit Soros at his home in the Hamptons in the state of New York. He has returned from Europe and is spending the rest of the summer at El Mirador, as his Mediterranean-style villa is known. A household employee shows me to a table in the dining room and offers me some ginger tea, "a specialty of the house". A few minutes later, Soros walks in. He is dressed in a white linen shirt, dark trousers and sandals. He hadn't been on the tennis court that morning; he was busy with phone calls instead. In the five weeks since I've seen Soros in Paris, the Trump Administration has slapped new trade sanctions on China and imposed tariffs on goods from Canada and the EU. I ask why the markets and the broader economy are holding up so well in the face of a possible global trade war, the breakdown of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the political turmoil in Washington. Soros says these developments will eventually drag down the market, but he can't say when. "I've lost my capacity to anticipate the markets," he says, adding with a smile, "I'm an amateur now." It's like hearing Roger Federer say he's lost his touch around the net. As my conversation with Soros draws to a close, I think I pick up a little vulnerability. He is talking about his wealth and the opportunities it has given him. "For me, money represents freedom and not power," he says. For a long time, money has given him the freedom to do and say what he pleases, and also the freedom not to care what other people say and think about him. But he concedes that he has started to care. "I have become a bit more concerned about my image, because it is disturbing to have those lies out there," he says. He also admits that being the anointed villain for so many people around the world is unpleasant. "I'm not happy to have that many enemies. I wish I had more friends." This is an edited version of a story first published in The New York Times. © 2018 The New York Times.