“Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote unquote own the libs,” President Trump’s Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley recently asked a crowd of high schoolers. Most of the teens in the audience raised their hands, then exploded into uproarious applause. “I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good,” Haley continued, “But step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this — are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?”
It would be ironic for a Trump official to admonish the youth for inflammatory political tactics if irony hadn’t died in 2016. But with Haley’s utterance of the phrase IRL, the concept of “owning the libs” officially went mainstream.
To “own” someone on the internet is to dominate and humiliate them, and the “libs” can loosely be defined as anyone to the left of Sean Hannity. If you hate yourself enough to read political commentary all day on Twitter dot com, you already know that “owning the libs” is an often-sung refrain.
After the president called Kim Jong-un a “smart” and “funny guy” with a “great personality,” conservative commentator Rick Wilson jokingly tweeted:
Praising a violent dictator and praising his control of his captive slave populace to own the libs.
— Rick Wilson (@TheRickWilson) June 15, 2018
To own the libs is to partake in the pettiest of culture wars. But moreover, to own the libs is to own yourself, no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on. As comedian Patrick Monahan, an early adopter of the meme, tells Rolling Stone, owning the libs is “laughing as you post ‘Trump is still your President’ memes in Facebook threads while the bank forecloses on your farm. It comes down to a need for community and some kind of cultural ‘win’ [for the right] since they perceive culture to be against them at all times.”
The actual actions that yield successful lib-ownage vary.
“The funny thing about owning the libs is that it’s textbook performative virtue signaling, from people who say they hate that,” Monahan says.
Boycotting corporations that take a progressive political stance or patronizing companies perceived as right-wing are common ways to own the libs. After John “Papa John” Schnatter blamed his falling pizza sales on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, right-wing conspiracy maven Jack Posobiec had his rehearsal dinner catered by the national pizza chain — and at least one Twitter user commented, “Eating horrible pizza at my wedding to own the libs.” When Netflix inked a deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, alt-right culture warriors claimed to have canceled their subscriptions to the streaming service in protest. Last fall, Keurig pulled its ads from Sean Hannity’s broadcast, following criticism of the Fox News host’s coverage of Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore’s sexual misconduct allegations. Hannity Heads rebelled against the company by smashing their Keurigs.
— Angelo John Gage (@AngeloJohnGage) November 12, 2017
“Owning the libs” in its current form — i.e. blatant self-sabotage for dumb political reasons — first emerged when a user tweeted at Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, attaching a photo of himself lying face down in a dumpster.
— Shawn Conway (@shawn_conway) June 25, 2015
At least on Twitter, the actual phrase “own the libs” can be traced back to June 2015, when user @randygdub tweeted, “thinkin about the one guy who laid down in a dumpster to own libs online and hoping ted cruz does it too.”
Reached for comment about his take on the meme now, @randygdub says, “A guy laying in a dumpster is the reason Trump is president now.”
He’s not wrong. Conscious acts of “triggering” the libs amped up considerably during the 2016 election, as Trump’s political rise corresponded with the intensification of online culture wars. (Some time after Trump took office, the conventional syntax of the meme slightly shifted to “owning” the libs, although “triggering the libs” is still alive and well.)
In October 2017, it felt as though we had reached peak lib-ownage, when a member of Turning Point USA — the anti-PC culture, conservative campus organization — protested college safe spaces by wearing a literal diaper.
To be fair, right-wing culture warriors made fools of themselves for the sole purpose of pissing off the left long before the rise of social media. After France declined to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush supporters protested the country by purchasing bottles of French wine and dumping them out in the streets of New York and tried to rebrand French fries as “freedom fries.”
As Wilson tells Rolling Stone, “This idea that conservative philosophy can be replaced with trolling is so fundamentally not conservative, and the fact that people on the right love it so much is because of their insecurities — the whole idea on the right is that, ‘Oh liberals are so much smarter than us, we have to tear ‘em down because they’re the scrawny pencil-necked geek redheads from Harvard.’” He blames Fox News and conservative talk radio, as well Sarah Palin’s vice presidential run, for making trolling the libs the chief ideology of the GOP. “They really hated it for a long time… [and] now we’ve reached the point where it is the singular part of Republican political culture.”
While the act of “owning the libs” is mostly a right-wing phenomenon, the left has co-opted the phrase as a straightforward way to comment on this absurdist style of politics. When Trump tweeted, “The great success of this Administration is making [the media] do and say things that even they can’t believe they are saying,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes observed:
This is wonderfully honest. "The great success" of the Trump administraiton is….pwning the libs! https://t.co/0Te8SycI4i
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) April 30, 2018
David Frum, an editor at the Atlantic and former George W. Bush speechwriter, tells Rolling Stone, “When people are losing politically, they retreat from politics and take refuge in cultural criticism.” Even though Republicans control two-thirds of state houses, the executive and the legislative branches, they still feel this underdoggian impulse to score culture war points.
“People on the left want to talk about Medicare-for-all and universal basic income and federal job guarantees,” Frum says. “They have a series of things they want to do with the state [and] big ideas that they want the public to think about. Conservatism really doesn’t have those right now.”
It’s worth noting that there are plenty of liberals doing their darnedest to out-own the conservatives. Shortly after Trump won the election, a New Balance VP told a Wall Street Journal reporter, “The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us, and frankly with President-Elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” In response, liberals began burning their sneakers in protest. Nevertheless, among the petty culture wars drivel, the left is still pushing actual political platforms.
When Haley lectured high schoolers about their love of owning the libs, she made a similar point, albeit hypocritical, since she works for the lib-owner-in-chief. “Real leadership is about persuasion,” she said, “it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view.”
The problem is, the “owning the libs” model of politics doesn’t have a point of view. It isn’t about furthering an ideological goal, only churlishness — it seeks to make the world a nastier and dumber place. The emptiness of it all is haunting.
“I don’t see an immediate sign of this particular fad fading away,” Wilson says. And why would it? We live in an age where social media toxicity is inextricable from politics — the discourse gets more inane and inflammatory with each passing second. And so we log on, day after day, seeking to earnestly or ironically “own the libs” for … what, exactly?
This piece has been updated to include an even earlier version of “own the libs” than previously known.