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How ‘owning the libs’ became the ethos of the right



GREAT FALLS, MT - JULY 05: U.S. president Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Four Seasons Arena on July 5, 2018 in Great Falls, Montana. President Trump held a campaign style 'Make America Great Again' rally in Great Falls, Montana with thousands in attendance. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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  • “Owning the libs” is a tongue-in-cheek expression to
    either describe rattling Democrats and progressives or
    conservatives making their own missteps in the attempt to do
  • 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

“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
organize, host events, and propel themselves into careers in
media and politics. Both YAF and TPUSA, while
at odds with one another
, utilize 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

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

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 emphasizes 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

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
, 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

“Has Vladimir Putin ever chanted ‘Death to America’? NO!
Has President Rouhani ever chanted ‘Death to America’? YES,” Wohl
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

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

“And it’s just incredible. It’s funny. Of course it’s
funny,” he added. “It’s the same kind of humor 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?”

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

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: President-elect Donald Trump (L) talks after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Trump is scheduled to meet with members of the Republican leadership in Congress later today on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President-elect Donald
Trump and President Barack Obama in the oval office shortly after
the 2016 presidential election.

Win McNamee/Getty

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 colorful or being a tough guy.

This week, when the White House announced it would revoke
security clearances for former officials who have criticized
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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