Donald Trump has been called many things, but linguistic stylist is not one of them. Indeed, a poverty of vocabulary is one of his hallmarks. In this guest blog my good friend, Suzanne Garment, reflects on Donald Trump’s curious addiction to “loser” as an epithet of choice. She writes in the tradition of William Safire, who was not only an astute observer of political affairs, but a renowned student of the English language.
Suzanne, who contributed a guest blog on the subject of the Donald J. Trump Foundation last October, is a scholar, lawyer, and one-time columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
The Language of Donald Trump: “Evil Losers”
By Suzanne Garment
Donald J. Trump, our president, has once again doubled down.
You’ll remember that when he learned about the Manchester bombing, he denounced the murderers as “evil losers in life.” He must have known that the phrase sounded strange, because he explained it: “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.”
“I will call them losers from now on,” he said, fixing their name and establishing their identity for future times. And they are “losers, just remember that,” he told us, admonishing us not to forget their primary identity.
So, this wasn’t an offhand comment. The president was going long with “loser,” drawing a semantic line in the sand.
The blowback began right away. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank observed, Trump bestowed on the Manchester terrorists the same label he had applied to John McCain, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio; Charles Krauthammer, George Will, and Bill Maher; Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosie O’Donnell, and Cher; and so on down. Trump was employing a currency that he had radically devalued.
In short, he means it.
Yet, viewed against the backdrop of President Trump’s larger rhetorical output, what’s so egregious about his calling the Manchester terrorists losers?
The late New York Times columnist Bill Safire was a friend. He became anathema to a large part of the liberal establishment while serving in President Richard Nixon’s White House. After Watergate, when the Times hired him, there was protest within the ranks – probably even louder than today’s protest at the Times’ hiring of Bret Stephens from The Wall Street Journal.
Safire outlasted the protesters to become a much admired figure at the Times. There were a few reasons. First, he was a smart, fluid writer. Second, he became a champion of the Times; there was virtually no daylight between Safire’s columns and the paper’s news side. Third, it wasn’t just the Times that he championed. He didn’t write like a predictable Republican or conservative; he wrote like a defender of a free press, with all the implications – some hawkish, some libertarian – that this position entailed.
And, finally, Safire chose to write about language. Even before he officially stopped writing politics for the Times and launched his “On Language” column, he insisted on the importance of words. In 1985 he hosted the first meeting of the Judson Welliver Society for former White House speechwriters, named after the ex-newspaperman who reportedly wrote for Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding. It was a bipartisan institution, including everyone from Clark Clifford, who wrote speeches for Harry Truman, to Tony Dolan, who wrote for Ronald Reagan. Not one of the members would have denied that words matter.
I know I’m safe in writing on Safire’s behalf that it is very, very hard to give the benefit of the doubt in politics to a man who calls a terrorist a loser.
On the principle of avoiding contempt before investigation, I’ve looked at a lot of definitions of loser. They cover many dimensions, as you might expect from a word that’s at base an all-purpose schoolyard insult. There’s loser as failure: also-ran, bum, derelict, dud, flop. There’s loser as stupid: dense, dim, doltish, dopey. There’s loser as unpopular: creepy, gross, unattractive, shunned. There’s loser as wimp: weakling, crybaby, pushover, wuss.
As far as I can find, there’s no proper definition of loser based on active, malevolent, life-destroying evil. In fact, it’s almost logically impossible for someone to be an evil loser. A loser is deficient in agency. A loser is passive, not active. A loser dwells at the bottom of a hierarchy; he doesn’t plot to blow it up, let alone plot successfully. A loser doesn’t have the emotional energy to be evil.
But President Trump stared into the face of real evil, reached deep within his soul to find the worst possible term he could envision to describe it – and came up with “evil loser.” The words suggest that his knowledge of good and evil stopped developing in maybe the sixth grade.
True, there’s a counter-argument, which goes like this: ISIS appeals to young people partly because they think ISIS is winning. Trump may not know good and evil, but he knows winning and losing. When he calls the ISIS jihadis losers, he’s contradicting one of their major assertions.
Crazy like a fox, the argument continues – like Ronald Reagan, whom Clark Clifford called an “amiable dunce” and who succeeded, with notable help, in undermining the Soviet Union.
I hope that’s true. Otherwise, the president’s words tell us that he has the sensibility of an adolescent bully. And if words matter, we’d better keep working to shore up the institutions on which we’ll rely to constrain him.