About four years ago, just when Trump and Brexit took off, I happened upon a self-help book from the 1990s called Radical Honesty. The basic thrust was that people should aim for as much honesty as possible, starting with how they feel about a situation—the assumption being that what people think is generally a rationalisation of their feelings. The book owed a debt to Nietzsche, since Nietzsche demanded a radical honesty from his readers as part of his worldview. The view chimed with the idea that what fails to kill you makes you stronger, interpersonal relationships will become anti-fragile if they consist of many small honest confrontations rather than a pseudo-stability caused by lying.
The book seemed about right for the times. Trump offered the American public a blunt and honest assessment and millions of Americans responded positively. The originator of Radical Honesty, Brad Blanton, pitched himself as a kind of redneck dispensing homespun, no bullshit wisdom straight from the heart—or, perhaps, the balls. He observed that in his professional career as a psychologist he had seen a six-figure salary psychologist who was absolutely miserable, despite their attempts to help other people. A pragmatist, Blanton was willing to use acupuncture and foot massage as personal experiments; if it works for you, no matter how wacky, then keep doing it. This sensibility seemed to encapsulate the populist moment: a redneck who suffers no pretentious bullshit, sees experts as more deluded than the people they are trying to help, and will try anything on the basis of personal experimentation—even if disdained by professionals.
I found that I became considerably happier when I followed the advice in the book. The more honest I was and the more I aimed to reduce lies, the happier I became. For sure, the strategy led to more conflicts, but often these conflicts exposed relationships that had grown hollow or exploitative—illusions were shattered. On the other hand, I had more sex and opened up new opportunities that I would not have thought possible before.
Eventually, I encountered Blanton’s website. I was surprised that he voiced views that were boilerplate progressivism; he loathed Trump—despite his own redneck background. It struck me about a year later why this should be. Blanton was very careful to suggest in his book that people should not be brutally honest; now, I agree that you should not be brutally honest with intent to hurt someone. However, if you experiment with honesty you will find that most honesty hurts—truth hurts, as they say. This is true even when you are honest with yourself; if you are honest about your own limitations, for example, it hurts; it feels like failure, and you push it away with lies. If you say to an obese person, “You are grossly overweight and you will enjoy life more if you lose weight,” you are honest—yet it will still hurt them, let alone if you say, “The sight of your pig-like body disgusts me.”
Hence the old saying, “Honesty starves.” Diogenes the Cynic committed himself to honesty, but he ended up shunned by society and living in a barrel. This was why Blanton had to moderate his message; with the caveat against brutal honesty in place, the book could sell well and Blanton could renege on honesty—and yet any real benefits from honesty accrue when it hurts. Hence, in line with what is considered high status, the dishonest world was, for him, the old America; and so Trump could not possibly be honest.
Finally, you come to realise that while you should always be honest with yourself it is pointless to be honest with the out-group, with people who intend to hurt or betray you. There is no obligation to be honest to them; and if you are you will be met with bemusement or ignored, if not simply taken advantage of. Blanton knew this well enough—albeit unconsciously—so he was not honest with the out-group, the Trumpers.