Loser” is a strange word.
Literally and most plainly, it is simply someone who doesn’t win some specific contest or challenge: the loser of a race, boxing match, business deal, etc. Economists routinely talk about how this or that policy — on trade, taxes, whatever — creates “winners and losers.”
A big part of President Donald Trump’s winning appeal in the 2016 election was that Americans were on the losing end of trade policy. Trump took it further, arguing that we don’t win wars or anything else anymore. Elect me, he promised, and you’ll grow tired of all the winning.
But here’s the thing: The logical and semantic inference of this rhetoric is that Americans, Trump voters or the American military are losers.
Now, hold on. That rage building in some of you at the suggestion that Americans, Trump voters or the American military are losers perfectly illuminates the problem with the word “loser.” The moment you use it to describe a person or a group, the meaning changes profoundly from an objective descriptor to a subjective epithet.
Tom Brady is widely seen as the greatest quarterback in the history of football. But even Brady loses games from time to time.
In his statement on the Manchester terror attack, Trump said that terrorists are “evil losers.”
“I won’t call them ‘monsters’ because they’d like that term,” Trump said. “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.”
The response from many Trump critics has been a mixture of outrage and eye rolling.
Part of the problem is that “loser” is one of Trump’s favorite insults. As USA Today cataloged, he’s used it against everyone from Rosie O’Donnell to George Will and Standard & Poor’s. Not only has he called me a loser, but a “total loser.”
But I don’t think he was calling me a terrorist.
Moreover, I don’t think he’s wrong to call terrorists “losers.” In the West, a lot of the people attracted to Islamic extremism are losers in all the meanings of the word. Omar Mateen, the avowed disciple of ISIS who killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, was a screw-up and school bully who dreamed of becoming a police officer but ended up a very disgruntled security guard instead. The Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, a college dropout, appears to have been a misfit.
Islamic terrorist organizations are hardly the only groups to recruit from the ranks of loserdom. Street gangs, neo-Nazis and countless communist fronts have been seducing resentful oddballs, outcasts and misanthropes. It simply makes sense that such people would be attracted to such groups. Radical causes provide a sense of meaning, belonging and importance to people who lack such things in their daily lives. Throughout Europe, the reserve army of jihadists is full of people who feel alienated or deracinated in Western society. In other words, they feel “lost,” which is a kind of losing. The extremists tell the disgruntled that their resentments are righteous and give these losers the opportunity to settle scores.
On the other hand, in some non-Western societies, terrorists aren’t losers in the pejorative, schoolyard-epithet sense, but they are losers nonetheless. Osama bin Laden was the scion of a wealthy and prominent family. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as the head of al-Qaida, was from a successful Egyptian family of doctors and was himself a surgeon. They chose to become terrorists for ideological reasons. Subscribing to a doctrine first explicated by Sayyid Qutb, an Islamist intellectual, they believed that the true faith was losing the battle with the forces of modernity and the West.
Trump may not have all these distinctions in mind when he calls terrorists “losers,” but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.