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Trump is Transactional, and So Are We

September 13th, 2020 by dk

It should surprise no one that Trump secretly believes that soldiers are “losers” and “suckers,” according to reports printed this week in The Atlantic. Jeffrey Goldberg’s reporting has since been confirmed by several other news outlets.

Goldberg writes about Trump visiting the Arlington National Cemetery with Gen. John Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. “Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’”

As Americans consider whether to give Trump a second term, it’s incumbent on us to understand something important. His electoral success in 2016 originated in us — all of us. Even those who didn’t vote for him contributed. Together, we created the conditions that brought him success.

Goldberg’s quote reveals those conditions, but Trump wasn’t first to put his finger on it. I heard it first from Oregon’s top political leader, almost 15 years ago.

John Kitzhaber was Oregon’s governor from 1995 until 2003. Term limits forced him to leave the office, but he wasn’t finished. He wanted to continue his work, melding politics with his original career as an emergency room physician. He took some time to reflect on  Oregon’s politics and government before returning to public view.

Kitzhaber advocated an overhaul of Oregon’s health care delivery system. His Archimedes Movement was full of hope for change, years before people knew the name Barack Obama. But his time of reflection about how the machinery of government actually works also brought some despair.

He was trying to build a popular movement around health care reform, because he no longer believed that legislators could do the work themselves. Too many politicians, in his view, had become captive to what he called “transactional politics.” This strain of self-interest had infected the political left as well as the political right.

He could read the thought bubbles above legislators’ heads. It was similar to what Trump said at the gravesite: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” That virus of transactional self-interest has been virulent for decades. Special interest groups command lawmakers’ attention and control their voting decisions. Kitzhaber called it out in 2007.

It’s not just politics. Our obsession to reduce every interaction to a transaction has poisoned us. We buy on Amazon because it’s cheaper and easier than supporting the shopkeeper who raised his children with our own.

We complain when our driving habits are interrupted by necessary road maintenance because it cost us time or trouble. We ignore a neighbor’s verbal abuses heard through an open window, but get concerned when his overgrown lawn might reduce the neighborhood’s property values.

We vote for people who promise to give us what we want — whether it’s conservative judges or clean water and air. When they can’t deliver on their promises, we look for a new face who promises they know how to succeed where their predecessor failed.

We must view President Trump as someone we didn’t discover so much as invent. He embodies the transactional thinking that has dominated our lives for much too long.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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