Donald Trump is famous for describing his many opponents—from Rosie O’Donnell to an astrologer in Cleveland named Gary—as “losers.” But on Tuesday, following a terrorist attack that killed at least 22 people at a concert in the English city of Manchester, the American president did something new and notable: He applied the term to those who have claimed responsibility for detonating a bomb among teenagers who had gathered to watch Ariana Grande perform—an act for which ISIS has taken credit.
“So many young, beautiful, innocent people living and enjoying their lives murdered by evil losers in life,” Trump said during a visit to Israel. “I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them from now on losers because that’s what they are. They’re losers. And we’ll have more of them. But they’re losers—just remember that.”
It’s a jarring term to use—a schoolyard put-down that Trump has favored in one petty context after another, uttered at a moment when young lives have been cut short and life’s simple joys have been brutally disrupted.
But it’s also a compelling strategy. Barack Obama refused to use phrases like “the Islamic State” and “radical Islamic terrorism” in part because he wanted to deny ISIS and its ilk a critical asset: religious legitimacy. Trump, who long condemned Obama for this position, didn’t just back away on Tuesday from the “radical Islam” language he deployed so often during the presidential campaign and the early days of his presidency. Echoing his recent speech in Saudi Arabia on jihadist terrorism, Trump used an epithet that translates across religions: “evil.” (Trump is also echoing George W. Bush, who described his war on terror as a battle between good and evil, and Ronald Reagan, who spoke of a moral struggle between the freedom-loving United States and the “Evil Empire” in Russia.) And he sought to deprive ISIS of another core asset: the perception that it is winning.