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.