OnWords: Transactional

Jan 9, 2019

The underpinnings of Donald Trump’s leadership style have often been described as “transactional.”

Observers and analysts seem to mean by this term an approach that sees the world as essentially a deal: for every thing we do, we expect reciprocity, hopefully in the form of something that benefits us, ideally in the form of something that benefits us more than others.

Using the word “transactional” is a quick way to sum up and make sense of terms like “good deal,” “bad deal,” “the worst deal in history,” and “winning!”

It also makes those who use it sound smart. In the case of left-wing analysts, they want to sound smarter than the president. In the case of right-wing analysts, they want to impart intelligence on the president via the magic of analysis.

But “transactional” may also be a way those struggling with Trump’s erratic decision-making can give it a gloss of coherence. “Transactional” describes a theme chiming from the noise of Trump’s nonsense.

For those of us who still cling to the idea of rationality, this is very satisfying: “See?” we seem to say, “There’s motive there, a sense of direction. He’s not a man out of his depth, after all. He’s transactional!”

And so maybe using terms like “transactional” in the case of Mr. Trump gets at a deeper use of language: to make meaning out of the fundamental chaos of experience.

The job of Adam, after all, was to name things.