- “Owning the libs” is a tongue-in-cheek expression in American politics to either describe rattling Democrats and progressives or conservatives making their own missteps in the attempt to do so.
- The phrase has accelerated among online trolls, campus activists, and much of the conservative right.
- The deeper meaning behind the strategy and tactics being carried out to “own the libs” is a major point of contention among traditional conservatives in the new Trump era of the GOP.
WASHINGTON – In the era of President Donald Trump, during his campaign for the presidency and nearly two years as commander in chief, many Republicans and conservatives have adopted a new ethos: own the libs at all costs.
The expression to “own the libs” is a often used as a tongue-in-cheek criticism of obscure but increasingly common right-wing tactics ranging from upending GOP orthodoxy on policy, to throwing your own expensive coffee machine out the window in protest of an ad boycott, to wearing diapers during a campus demonstration.
It simply means that Republicans enjoy to a great degree, sometimes even more than actual policy achievements, opportunities to make Democrats and liberals feel bad or face plant. The conservatives who like to own the libs do it because it feels good and it’s funny.
Owning the libs has come into full effect in 2018. Most recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions chuckled and mimicked part of the “lock her up!” chant directed at Hillary Clinton during a speech to high-school-aged conservatives.
The phrase also drew the attention of US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote-unquote ‘own the libs,'” Haley asked the teenage students attending the same conference as Sessions.
“I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what yo”re accomplishing when you do this – are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?” Haley said. “We’ve all been guilty of it at some point or another, but this kind of speech isn’t leadership – it’s the exact opposite.”
“Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view,” she added. “Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”
Conservative student activist groups have played a significant role in the build up of “owning the libs” as a core principle on the right.
Groups like the Young America’s Foundation and Turning Point USA have vast networks across college campuses where students can organise, host events, and propel themselves into careers in media and politics. Both YAF and TPUSA, while at odds with one another, utilise a heavy strategy of provoking what they view as a liberal control of America’s colleges and universities.
An online aristocracy of lib owners
The expression lives and breathes on the internet, with Twitter as its home base.
Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator and editor in chief of the highly successful, right-leaning website The Daily Wire told Business Insider in a phone interview that while owning the libs can be a funny, sarcastic game on Twitter, it is also representative of a larger problem on the conservative right.
“Ticking off the left by just saying nasty things is not productive,” he said. “And it wasn’t defeating political correctness, it’s actually exacerbating political correctness. Because when yo”re a jerk just to piss people off then the natural reaction by people tends to be ‘well we need more restrictions on speech, we need more political correctness, not less.'”
In some ways, Shapiro is one of the original owners of the libs. For years, he has given regular speeches at college campuses where he discusses conservative ideas and argues with progressive protesters. He also hosts one of the top podcasts on iTunes, during which he drinks out of a mug emblazoned with the slogan “LEFTIST TEARS.”
But Shapiro says there is a fundamental distinction between what he does and what is done by other right-leaning trolls. He says his speeches and campus activism are relatively civil on his part and that he emphasises fact-based arguments.
“Even in all those ‘Ben Shapiro destroys’ videos that people put up on the internet, I’m pretty civil in those conversations,” Shapiro noted. “It’s not me calling the person a name.”
What it comes down to for Shapiro is that even if progressives are infuriated by what he’s saying, it has to also be advancing conservatism in some way, shape, or form.
“If you want to truly own the libs, the only way to do that is to actually win an argument,” he said. “Not alienate them by saying jerky things that make them upset.”
One individual who has helped take the phrase into the mainstream is the Twitter troll @ComfortablySmug, often just referred to as “Smug.” He rose to infamy by spreading false information during Hurricane Sandy, and now he regularly targets Democrats and boosts the president’s tweets and actions.
In addition to owning the libs, Smug has also made a habit of tweeting at Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, often telling him to resign, that he is a disgrace, or that his loss in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries was a dodged bullet for the United States. Rubio’s staff are very much aware of Smug’s tweets, which they often find funny but also extremely annoying at times.
But Smug is just a Twitter super troll, which if it is not blatantly obvious, is even stated so in his pinned tweet, which reads, “This is a joke you f— morons.”
On another level of owning the libs is Jacob Wohl, who ran a hedge fund as a teenager that has been accused of scamming and improprieties. He’s a major online troll who uses inflammatory and hyperbolic tweets to elevate Trump in every way possible.
Wohl is different from Shapiro, a conservative idealist, or Smug, who is = clearly trolling. Users on Twitter often wonder if Wohl is a parody account or just madly obsessed with Trump.
Every time Trump tweets, Wohl replies immediately with unfettered praise for the president or wild comments about the president’s enemies.
“Has Vladimir Putin ever chanted ‘Death to America’? NO! Has President Rouhani ever chanted ‘Death to America’? YES,” Wohl wrote in response to Trump’s tweet at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “Which one does the MSM spend all day bashing?”
In a telephone interview with Business Insider, Wohl said that the act for him is fun, evoking in people “the type of unhinged emotional response that you would expect out of somebody who is suffering a serious mental episode of some kind or another.”
For Wohl, owning the libs is “where you can do something as simple as pull a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat out of your briefcase, put it on your head, and somebody will start crying.”
“And it’s just incredible. It’s funny. Of course it’s funny,” he added. “It’s the same kind of humour that you’d see when parents tell the kids that Christmas is cancelled and they say just kidding. It’s like why are these adults acting with such infantile lack of control over their emotions?”
NUKE IRAN pic.twitter.com/ZFZHS2mxei
— Jacob Wohl (@JacobAWohl) July 23, 2018
In terms of his shock-and-awe approach to tweeting massive hyperbole and outlandish things, Wohl said his methods are just at one end of a spectrum of political discourse.
“I could sit down and write a white paper the likes of which you’d see from the RAND Institute or the Atlantic Council, you name it,” he said. “Or on the other side of the spectrum, I could say ‘NUKE IRAN’ with a nuke GIF and which one do you think is going to be most effective at spreading a message throughout Twitter and provoking conversation. Obviously the latter and not the former.”
Trump is still number one
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesPresident-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama in the oval office shortly after the 2016 presidential election.
The most powerful example is Trump himself. The former reality television star bulldozed over more than a dozen Republican challengers and a Democratic nominee in Hillary Clinton in 2016 by mocking, name calling, and beating his chest.
There are too many examples to count. Trump’s morning tweetstorms often feature new nicknames and insults for his political opponents, he’ll shout down and berate journalists in the middle of press conferences with foreign leaders, and much more.
And when most of the old-guard Republicans notice, they simply shrug it off as him being colourful or being a tough guy.
This week, when the White House announced it would revoke security clearances for former officials who have criticised Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan brushed it aside as “just trolling” by the leader of the free world.
“I think he’s trolling people honestly,” Ryan said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “This is something that’s in the purview of the executive branch.”
Essentially, Ryan acknowledged that the White House was intentionally trying to provoke Democrats without any real agenda other than making them squirm and having a laugh about it. Ryan said this without any real hesitation or regret and went about his day.
Still, Republicans like Ryan, who tolerates Trump’s tactics, and activists like Shapiro, who maintain that his actions are purely civil and well-intentioned, are in a very different Republican Party than what existed a decade ago. This new age is much more combative, with an entirely different set of priorities.
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