Reading Karl Popper and Seeing America’s Problem

Karl Popper wrote The Open Society and its Enemies during World War II — a time when the rise of fascism from nationalism was fresh in people’s minds. Its basic thrust is that fascism has certain philosophical points of origin: Plato, Hegel and Marx.

I started reading the two volume work recently, and have completed the first book about Plato. I’m on to volume II, which starts with Hegel.

Without going too deeply into the nuance of Popper’s arguments (it’s better to read the books), I can report that the The Open Society and its Enemies is worthy for readers today. Popper writes in an engaging style with a certain amount of dry, and sometimes devastating, humor. He is willing to blast this trio of heavyweight thinkers for the dangers they pose. He does it with verve.

Fascists, whether ancient or modern, are enemies of the open society. Popper defines the open society as one where “individuals are confronted with personal decisions.”

Plato looked at individualism as an agent of  decay of the ideal social order. Plato thinks that any social change is evil. Everyone maintains their station within the order, which is based on eternal forms. I had never really thought about Plato as a proto-fascist before, but on reflection I  think that Popper is onto something.

Popper thinks that the enemies of the open society are seeking to escape from the strain of change and difficult personal decisions and responsibilities. The open society may only provide citizens of liberal democracies what seems like a dull grind, but to Popper the escapism of fascist thinking is far more dangerous.

Yesterday, I came across a passage that seemed to evoke the problems of America circa the Trump years. Many Americans have a fantasy vision of how everything would go better if only we can return to a better and easier era. To me the most egregious form of this is MAGA (Make America Great Again).

In this passage, Popper is discussing the nationalism that marked the early 19th-century German state that employed him Hegel as its ‘dictator of philosophy.’ However, I think it also applies to red-hat wearing Americans today:

“Nationalism appeals to our tribal instincts, to passion and to prejudice, and to our nostalgic desire to be relieved from the strain of individual responsibility.” (Volume 2, chapter 12, section 3, p. 54)

To me, Trump makes no sense whatsoever, but to others he makes perfect sense. Popper is helping me understand this mix of nostalgia for an era that likely never existed with a desire to relinquish critical thinking.

Plato yearned for a society controlled by philosopher elites and upper-class militarists (sustained by lower class merchants and slaves). The idea is that this is how it was in tribal Greece, before democracy and trade began to change — a transformation symbolized by the city state of Athens. Plato didn’t have any empathy for the other or those less fortunate in his ideal society. He wanted to go back to the tribe.

This lens of looking at contemporary nationalism helps me understand the strange and lurid phenomenon of Fox News. It’s a fantasy sold to people who desire to give up on considering the facts. This phenomenon also exists on the left, but to me Popper’s description clearly evokes the Fox watching Trump voter.




Donald Trump’s presidency is an indicator of deep disorder and fear. One of the most shocking aspects of living in America these days is that roughly four out of ten Americans tolerate or actively support him. The man is an illiterate malignant narcissist with dangerous fascistic and racist traits. He infuriates more than half the country, including me. For the past few years, I have wondered why there aren’t more powerful countervailing powers against abusive and criminally-inept leadership. I think those forces exist (witness the testimony of Fiona Hill), but they are diminished in the face of dark tides.

In my opinion, Trump’s power indicates a few problems:

  • The rise of shameless media celebrities who have eclipsed accountable community-based figures (Paris Hilton goes to Washington)
  • The unshackling of sinister forces in politics through dark money and the tools of cyberwar
  • An unsustainable rise in income and wealth inequality which further undermines community and stokes fear-based thinking among all social groups
  • A sense of profound loss and alienation among those with the most to lose–older Americans with property and savings

If America is going to survive, these forces need to recede. Perhaps this will happen when we are fully confronted by a great common foe such as climate change when its impacts become undeniable. I think that day is coming. Although we are a phenomenally wasteful nation, we are also an ingenious one.

Trump to me is an unfortunate indicator. Though I support his impeachment, I think his removal won’t remove the dark forces I’ve listed above. In a future blog post, I hope to write about some positive ways that each person can make their own small to large push against this tide that will drown us all if we do not use our creative intelligence.


State of the Union: No Sale

I watched the State of the Union address last night. The talk was dumb. Serves me right for watching television, that old-school tool of social control.

Of course the address was a sales pitch for Donald Trump’s administration. Although pundits may credit the president for not spending the entire time talking about himself, he did spend a lot of the time clapping at his own lines and goosing the crowd to give him more ovations.

There were some genuinely touching moments featuring extraordinary human bravery, suffering, and compassion. We saw the North Koren defector/amputee raising his crutches in the air, the police officer whose family adopted the unborn child of a woman hooked on heroin pleading to give that child a better life, and the family whose daughters were killed by MS-13 gang members.

These stories, however compelling, reminded me of the ubiquitous technique of showing happy people to sell products. There is no real connection between the story or image and the product. One exists to foster an emotional association about the other. All of these stories could have appeared in an Obama State of the Union address. Which is to say that none of this is new with Trump. The technique is likely as ancient as civilization — or at least as old as Methuselah.

Beyond the gambit of emotionally associating Trump and his administration with heroes and those who struggle. What else was he trying to sell? To me the big sale he tried to make is the tax bill. He said it would be good for the middle class and small business, that the new standard deduction eliminates federal taxation for the poorest Americans whose incomes are $24,000 or less per year.

Sounds good, right? And the points are true in a limited sense. But I think the larger picture is troubling. Completely unmentioned is the fact that families like Trump’s receive the lion’s share of benefits: lower “pass-through” rates of taxation than the middle class for partners as opposed to employees, a new tax deduction for private school, and a curtailment of the estate tax meant to prevent the American equivalent of dynastic wealth. Despite all the talk of closing the “carried-interest” loophole that lets certain financial professionals, such as private equity managers, skate by only paying around 23% of income, it survived tax reform. The upshot of all of this is that economic inequality will likely increase, which will be bad for almost everyone. I believe it will also be bad for the rich. Most spiritual traditions warn against greed.

So why would anyone buy it? Same question could be asked about why would anyone buy anything? They’ve been persuaded. The marketing worked.

For me: no sale, but that’s just one man’s opinion.