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We are at our best when we give without receiving

Amidst the drama of the US presidential election last week, a significant development may have escaped your notice.

The Fox News Channel turned on candidate Trump.

Fox News and Donald Trump have been kindred spirits for a long time. Fox’s anchors and opinion leaders have supported Trump through thick and thin, backing him to the hilt even through his most egregious excesses.

As the vote counts started streaming in, though, a sudden reversal occurred. Fox News became the first to call the state of Arizona for Trump’s rival for the presidency, Joe Biden – long before other networks did. Trump, as one would expect, reportedly threw a fit. His camp reached out to Fox insiders to get the call lifted. They are even reported to have reached the founder and global chair himself, Rupert Murdoch.

To no effect. They were rebuffed. Fox had moved on.

Many Fox anchors have since repeatedly questioned Team Trump’s wild claims of election rigging by the Biden camp; they have called the whole race in Biden’s favour just like every other network; and they have even urged the fuming president to concede the election gracefully.

What’s going on here? Transactional relationships.

Studying Donald Trump’s history, it is easy to conclude that pretty much every relationship he has ever had has been transactional: he gives something if he gets something. Transactional relationships are based on reciprocity. Both parties are in it entirely for themselves, and expect a quid pro quo every time – something for something.

In the case of Trump and Fox, something valuable was being exchanged. Trump received the applause and validation he clearly craves, and unlimited airtime on a pulpit from which to spread his message. The network got unique access to the president, huge viewing figures and, weirdly, the ability to shape his policy since he apparently watched nothing else.

The problem with transactional relationships is what transpired in election week. When the transaction sours, the relationship ends. Suddenly and viciously.

Rupert Murdoch has form in this area. He has often used his vast global media influence to back right-wing business-friendly leaders, starting with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – but only as long as they keep on winning and remain in power. When policies became unpopular and leaders faltered, he was quick to embrace Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK – without a second thought.

I suspect Donald Trump is about to experience many more shows of “disloyalty” in the weeks to come. The metaphor of rats and sinking ships will apply. He should not be surprised. This is exactly how transactional relationships end. When a better transaction comes along, people move on.

The wider lesson for all of us is to understand how poor we become when all our relationships are transactional. If everything we do is reciprocal and based on rational exchange, we lead lesser lives. It is perfectly OK for most of our professional and business relationships to be transactional – after all, mutual gain is a very necessary ingredient of human cooperation and interaction.

The problem comes when all our relationships are based on transactions.

The entire subject of economics, as I found to my chagrin at university, is taught on the basis of homo economicus – a sterile creature who maximises personal gain at all times. I found this framework ineffably sad – a reduction of the richness of human life to mere deal-making and trading.

This makes being human a very small deal. There is also a part of us that is outward focused; that wishes to be kind and generous even when nothing comes back to us in return. The best versions of ourselves are to be found in this state. Mothers who undergo every sacrifice and tribulation for their children are not doing it in order to receive a return on their investment in future. Most would do it instinctively and unthinkingly, and often continue to do it even when the child never shows any appreciation.

The most genuine relationships are like this. The teacher who takes great joy in the growth of her proteges, even if they never acknowledge it. The chief executive who trains and coaches young executives, even if they go on to bigger posts than his. The president whose greatest satisfaction is the uplift of the common citizen, even if no statue is ever erected to commemorate her. Those are all bigger deals.

Sadly, they are uncommon. Most of us are engaged in puerile exchanges and recording of favours that must be returned. Our true humanness will come from those rare moments where we just give and forget. We all need at least a few of those.

(Sunday Nation, 15 November 2020)

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