Owning the Libs


Owning the libs is a political strategy used by some conservatives in the U.S. that focuses on upsetting political liberals. Users of the strategy emphasize and expand upon culture war issues intended to be divisive to provoke a reaction in others.

Variant phrases such as ‘triggering the libs’ and ‘melting snowflakes’ are also used to refer to the strategy. It is associated with confrontational political slogans such as ‘fuck your feelings.’

The phrase ‘own the libs’ comes from a slang usage of the word own, meaning to dominate, defeat, or humiliate. The phrase dates back to at least 2015 and was coined and popularized by critics of the strategy, including politician Nikki Haley, who increased the prominence of the phrase in a 2018 speech in which she criticized the strategy as unpersuasive. It is also used by some who practice the strategy, such as Dan Bongino.

The ‘trigger’ variants of the phrase come from the idea of trauma triggers and ‘trigger warnings’ intended to avoid them. In his 2019 book ‘Triggered,’ Donald Trump Jr. says that the purpose of triggering liberals is to oppose political correctness. This method was adopted by the alt-right and alt-lite as a form of trolling and antagonism in the mid/late 2010s.

Conservative student activist groups like Turning Point USA and campus speakers like Ben Shapiro played a key role in developing the strategy during the 2000s and 2010s. The 2008 vice-presidential campaign of Sarah Palin was a precursor to the owning the libs method, according to Republican strategist Rick Wilson. Palin marked a merger between politics and entertainment, causing an anxiety among educated elites that her voters found thrilling. Wilson says that owning the libs assuages insecurities of people on the American political right, and has become central to the Republican Party because of its success at this. More recently, the strategy is associated with Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr.

Online troll Jacob Wohl has stated that the goal in owning the libs is to evoke in people ‘the type of unhinged emotional response that you would expect out of somebody who is suffering a serious mental episode.’ The strategy uses trolling to attempt to portray political opponents as weak, biased, or overly emotional, and to portray oneself as superior because of a lack of emotion. Users of the strategy sometimes seek to be deplatformed — for example, to have their own speaking engagements canceled — in order to gain notoriety.

Shared enjoyment of owning the libs maintains group cohesion among a conservative voting bloc, according to Nicole Hemmer of Columbia University. Hemmer views the strategy as substitute for the cohesive conservative ideology that existed during the Cold War.

The phrase ‘the cruelty is the point’ was coined from the title of journalist Adam Serwer’s 2018 article in ‘The Atlantic’ about Trump supporters building community together by delighting in the suffering of those they consider outsiders. The phrase and the observation about shared joy in cruelty have been written about in the media as the purpose of owning the libs.

Rutgers University media scholar Khadijah White says that the strategy serves to excuse corruption from one’s political allies by portraying one’s opponents as equally corrupt. Conservative political commentator Michael J. Knowles in a speech called ‘In Defense of Owning the Libs’ describes the process as “…performing or transgressing the logical conclusions of the leftist ideological obsession du jour, such as donning ‘politically incorrect’ attire or depicting the childish character of ‘safe spaces.’ He further argues that ‘In all of its forms, ‘owning the libs’ reveals the absurdity of leftist dogma through a tool too long neglected by conservatives: comedy.’

The strategy of owning the libs has been criticized by both liberal and conservative observers as an unsuccessful strategy, or as leading only to counterproductive Pyrrhic victory. At a 2018 Turning Point USA event, Republican Nikki Haley remarked: ‘Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote-unquote own the libs. I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this — are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading? 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.’

In her book ‘Troll Nation,’ journalist Amanda Marcotte argues that owning the libs is so central to the political right that any effort to show care and concern for the well-being of others, or even for oneself, is viewed as suspiciously liberal. She gives the example of ‘rolling coal’ — modifying a pickup truck to produce clouds of black smoke. Exhaust from rolling coal is sometimes directed at drivers of fuel efficient cars and cyclists, in order to offend their presumed liberal environmentalist values. Marcotte argues that rolling coal has no value outside of trolling liberals, yet it costs the coal-roller money. Hence, Marcotte argues, rolling coal is an expensive and counterproductive way to misconstrue environmentalism as an identity marker instead of a policy matter.

Among the ‘owning’ attempts that liberals found amusing as in their view conservatives humiliated themselves was serving Papa John’s pizza at their own wedding to counter the protest of kneeling during the national anthem.

In 2020, political columnist Paul Waldman wrote that ‘hatred of liberals is all that’s left of conservatism.’ He argues that owning the libs has pushed aside all policy goals previously central to Republicans, such as small government and lower taxes, and also Republican commitment to democracy and patriotism. Waldman gives the example of the ‘Texas v. Pennsylvania’ lawsuit and the physical violence threatened against Republicans who refused to join the suit.

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