Donald Trump has coined a term to describe terrorists like those who murdered 22 people on Monday in Manchester: “Losers.” White House officials claim he came up with it on his own.
That’s not surprising. As USA Today has noted, “losers” is Trump’s go-to epithet. He’s applied the term to the Standard & Poor’s credit-ratings agency, Rosie O’Donnell, George Will, Cher, Salon, Huffington Post, Karl Rove, Graydon Carter, Marc Cuban, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, the Club for Growth, Ana Navarro, The New York Daily News, a Scottish farmer who tried to keep him from building a golf course, and the Republican Party, among others. Maybe the term will prove effective in undermining the aura of rebellious cool that attracts some young Muslims to ISIS, as my Atlantic colleague Uri Friedman suggests, although I have my doubts about Trump’s ability to arbitrate what young Muslims find hip.
But regardless of the label’s efficacy, calling ISIS “losers” says a lot about Trump. America’s leaders speak about jihadist terrorists a bit like they speak about Adolf Hitler. Since both are synonymous with evil, politicians identify them with whichever attributes they find particularly odious. (Thus, for the NRA, one of Hitler’s most salient characteristics was his support for gun control.) Since 9/11, every American president has emphasized a different aspect of jihadist depravity. In his speech to a joint session of Congress nine days after September 11, George W. Bush called the 9/11 hijackers “enemies of freedom.” That’s not a particularly accurate description of their motivations. Al-Qaeda’s primary beef has always been with American foreign policy, not America’s democracy. (Otherwise why not attack Costa Rica?) But for Bush, who wanted to use the attacks to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the association was useful. Defining the hijackers as freedom’s enemies accentuated the values he held dear, and the agenda he wished to pursue.
President Obama tended to define al-Qaeda and ISIS less as purveyors of tyranny than of bigotry and unreason, a scourge he believed extended beyond the Muslim world. In a 2014 speech at the United Nations, Obama called jihadist terrorists people who “peddle only fanaticism and hate” and argued “that humanity’s future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along the fault lines of tribe or sect, race or religion.” If Bush was trying to link al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, Obama was linking it to militant Jewish settlers in the West Bank, Marine Le Pen, and Dylann Roof.
So why is Trump putting ISIS in the same category in which he places Rosie O’Donnell? Because for him, America’s primary goal is not freedom or tolerance. It’s success. Trump espouses no deeply held political, religious, or moral doctrine. He sees government through the lens of business. And thus, he’s more comfortable with the language of winning and losing than the language of right and wrong. That’s why he’s so obsessed with the margin of his electoral victory and the size of his crowds. It’s why he responds to articles critical of him by saying that the newspapers that published them are “failing.” For Trump, losing is worst thing you can do. There’s no room in his worldview for someone who fails in a noble cause. Remember what he said about John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
In selecting the term “losers,” Trump considered and rejected an alternative: “monsters.” He explained that, “I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name.” I suspect that’s wrong. While monster is a reasonable description of people who purposely kill children, it’s not the way ISIS terrorists view themselves. Unfathomable as it may be to people who don’t share their murderous worldview, it’s likelier that they generally see themselves as combatants in a just war.
So why does Trump think ISIS murderers would prefer the term “monster” to “loser?” Perhaps because that’s the term he would prefer. Think about the language he used to describe his sexual assault: “When you’re a star they let you do it.” For Trump, the ultimate test of a person’s worth isn’t right. It’s might. He figures jihadist terrorists think the same way.