Guest Blog. The Language of Donald Trump: “Evil Losers”

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.

But President Trump doesn’t retreat — or at least he doesn’t admit that he’s retreating. And in this case, he didn’t retreat at all. The day after the Manchester attack, addressing NATO’s assembled heads of state, he exhorted them to “unite in finding, exposing, and removing these killers and extremists – and, yes, losers. They are losers.”

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.

12 thoughts on “Guest Blog. The Language of Donald Trump: “Evil Losers”

  • Thanks, Roger, for describing Donald Trump as odious. A perfect adjective to describe a most imperfect, ignorant and dangerous man. His lack of subtlety in expression betrays a lack of nuance in thought. The idea that Mr. Trump’s “transparent rantings” are preferable to more reality based considerations is a false dichotomy. It reminds me of Walter Lippmann’s endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1968 which in relevant part read: ” It is better that Nixon should have the full authority if the repression should become necessary in order to restore peace and tranquility in the land.” We know where this sort of mindset led. We do not need to be thinking this way in 2017.

  • Instead of the intellectual class being bothered by the notion that this entire system has failed, they find it deeply disturbing that DT is doing EXACTLY what he has done for the past thirty years. Although his mastery of language is not so wonderful, why should this really matter? Is it really more important to have another who can charm us with his/her words while doing nothing other than supporting a status quo that has now entered putrefaction?

    Words, at best, are a mere approximation of reality and therefore must be treated as such. I would rather have a figure such as DT with his transparent rantings then any Ivy League douche bag only interested in planting more vines and insuring that the next generation live lives as pathetic as their own.

    • Lonn Schwartz has nailed lt. if I were to be in serious confrontation whereby my safety may be at risk, I would much rather have a club than a book of poetry.
      “Sticks and stones” etc.

      • Hi Roger et. al.

        Moron, (possibly)….High School Student….that would be fun at 84.
        Five years Navy, Nine years of college and advanced studies.
        Publisher, Editor, Accredited CME provider!
        Must have fooled a lot people along the way.
        Realist. I think so.
        Mr. Trump is the President of all of United States, even for those that voted for Ms Clinton, and B Sanders? Time to accept that fact, and Become a Realist!
        B

  • A really interesting, probing discussion of Trump’s choice of language in describing the Manchester terrorists. His use of “evil loser” does say more about Trump than it does about the terrorists. “Loser” is Trump’s most dreaded word, even when he does loose at an endeavor (bankruptcies, lawsuits, marriage, failed policy, etc) he interprets it as a win. The effects of his actions are certainly damaging on numerous other people, and with known intent. Just qualification as “evil”. In my book, it is Trump who is the “evil loser”, as Roger suggested.

    • Yes, Bill. We must remember that whenever DT condemns someone as being a ‘loser’ he speaks out of deep personal experience and first-hand knowledge. After all, as you point out, he is one par excellence. However, what really concerns me about his excessive use of this deprecatory appellation is the world-view it betrays: one of winners and losers; life as a zero-sum game, as either-or and not a spectrum of options and outcomes. He is, to speak theologically, of a Manichaean (sp?) mentality, a world absent grace – Divine or otherwise.

      • Great point, Ken, about the zero sum game mentality. Trump has to see himself as a winner, anyone who opposes him becomes a loser in his mind, and he is intent on prevailing over them. Not a healthy strategy to have become dominant in any society that wants to be a well functioning community!

      • Thanks Ken forv yourr terrrific comment. Trump’s obnoxious behavior was on full display at the NATO meeting in Brussels last week. We cannot expect anything good or intelligent from this odious man.

        Best. -Roger

    • Thanks Bill. Of course, Suzi is right to point out that Trump’s use of cheap talk to describe a tragedy is totally inappropriate. As if we were playing a game of gin rummy or craps with a terrorist. He was a mass murderer, not a “loser.” Best -Roger

  • Bravo Suzi and thanks for reminding me of Wm. Safire’s brilliant column “On Language.”

    As for Trump, he is both evil and a loser, the former word describing his despicable character, the latter his total failure as a political leader.

    The Manchester suicide bomber is a terrorist and we may never know if he was insane or motivated by some hateful ideology. But, yes, he most certainly was a loser, choosing an horrific end to his own life and those of many others.

  • Doug: I can’t remember where I read that Donald Trump’s father taught young Donald that there were only two categories of humans: killers and losers. Poverty of language reflects poverty of reflection.

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