The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Baghdadi’s death should have been a clear victory for Trump. It wasn’t.

A painting of President George Washington is visible behind President Trump as he speaks Sunday to announce the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The assassination of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi this weekend should have been a clear victory for President Trump. Instead, his stumbling and graphic announcement of Baghdadi’s death shows why he remains a polarizing figure for so many Americans.

Americans will not mourn the terrorist mastermind’s death. The Islamic State unleashed mass murder in the Middle East and killed many Americans. It inspired or directed others to launch terrorist operations in Western countries, most notably the November 2015 attacks in Paris that left more than 130 people dead. No rational person will miss Bagdhadi or his twisted, evil organization.

Nor will many Americans regret our military’s role in ending the Islamic State’s rule or its leader’s life. The effort to defeat the terrorist group started under President Barack Obama and has received the support of virtually all political leaders. One may differ over specific tactics employed in the battle, but there was no dispute between our increasingly polarized parties that we should utterly destroy the Islamic State.

Trump’s announcement of Bagdhadi’s demise, however, detracted from the national victory. His halting delivery, seemingly unable to complete short sentences without pausing, shows how uncomfortable the president is with words. Compare Trump’s speech with Obama’s announcement of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Obama’s speech flowed freely and had a reassuring tone. Trump’s, to put it gently, did not.

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Trump’s insistence on using graphic, brutal language also separates the two men. One can sense how much Trump was moved by the agony of Baghdadi’s final minutes and how he relished seeing a hate-filled man driven by the fear he caused in so many others. That emotion — the sense that justice was delivered — is only human. That does not mean the president of the United States ought to display those feelings to the entire world.

It is one thing to be told that Bagdhadi died fleeing justice and murdered his own children rather than be captured. It is quite another to be told repeatedly that he “was whimpering,” was “a coward” and that he “died like a dog.” The president should be above such obvious glee at his enemy’s defeat.

There are surely many Republicans who will disagree. They will delight in his coarse language and his stark description of a terrorist who felt terror at his end. They will tell us that this is another example of Trump’s virtue — that he fights and tells it like it is. For many, this blunt talk is a source of his appeal.

But others believe that the United States is a moral nation and that it ought to display all of its virtues precisely at moments like these where might makes right. Our president should not shirk from talking about what an evil man did, nor should he display faux moral equivalence when discussing the death of a gangster. But neither should he wallow in the gutter, even for a moment, exulting like a vicious animal celebrating its kill. That’s not what America is about — at least, it shouldn’t be what we are about.

One can be a fighter without being a thug. Winston Churchill was a ferocious fighter — someone who stood up to Adolf Hitler when even his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, seemed afraid. Churchill did not shirk from telling the truth about the vile and vicious Nazi regime that Hitler built. But one cannot imagine Churchill publicly celebrating Hitler’s suicide with glee. He would never announce to Britons that Hitler had “died like a dog” in the Führerbunker. Churchill famously said “in victory, magnanimity,” because it was precisely by displaying greatness of soul when one can display barbaric vengeance that one shows the victor’s moral superiority over the vanquished. One longs for a wisp of the Churchillian in Trump.

There are many Americans who support the bulk of Trump’s policies but shudder about supporting him. Some vote for him while others demur. If Trump were ever to grasp that his own lack of restraint pushes away people who might be his friends, he would become the odds-on favorite for reelection. Instead, we have what we saw Sunday morning: a man capable of great will and decisiveness who nonetheless brings himself down through the smallness of his soul.

Read more:

Max Boot: Al-Baghdadi’s death could have been Trump’s finest hour. He messed it up anyway.

Max Boot: The U.S. kills an ISIS leader. But Trump is giving the group a new lease on life.

Brett McGurk: Baghdadi’s death underscores what we’ve lost by abandoning Syria’s Kurds

Jennifer Rubin: Three ways the Baghdadi raid undermines Trump’s chaotic policy

James Downie: When Pence can’t defend Trump

The Post’s View: In Trump’s world, Syria is a success. In the real world, it’s a humiliation.