In one sense, this is the natural outgrowth of the Trump era. Inasmuch as there was a coherent belief that explained his agenda, it was lib-owning — whether that meant hobbling NATO, declining to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory, floating the prospect of a fifth head on Mt. Rushmore (his, naturally), or using federal resources to combat the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”
But in a post-Trump America, to “own the libs” is less an identifiable act or set of policy goals than an ethos, a way of life, even a civic religion.
“‘Owning the libs’ is a way of asserting dignity,” says Helen Andrews, senior editor of The American Conservative. “‘The libs,’ as currently constituted, spend a lot of time denigrating and devaluing the dignity of Middle America and conservatives, so fighting back against that is healthy self-assertion; any self-respecting human being would… Stunts, TikTok videos, they energize people, that’s what they’re intended to do.”
“I can envision a time where [pro-Trump Florida Rep.] Matt Gaetz could pin a picture of [Democratic New York Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to his own crotch, and smash it with a ball-peen hammer, and he’ll think it’s a huge success if 100,000 liberals attack him as an idiot,” says Jonah Goldberg, editor-in-chief of the anti-Trump conservative outlet The Dispatch. “It’s a way of taking what the other side criticizes about you and making it into a badge of honor.”
And in a world where polarization driven by social media has equipped every smartphone-wielding American with a hammer, every political dispute looks like a nail. A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, viral videos of mask burnings and other forms of lockdown protest proliferate. The arch-conservative, troll-friendly webmagazine The Federalist more than doubles its traffic each year. Pro-Trump students are bending reformicon-minded College Republican groups to their will. In certain parts of the country, modified pickup trucks “roll coal,” spewing jet-black exhaust fumes into the air as a middle finger to environmentalists. Popular bootleg Trump campaign merchandise read simply: “Fuck your feelings.”
“It’s a spirit of rebellion against what people see as liberals who are overly sensitive, or are capable of being triggered, or hypocritical,” says Marshall Kosloff, co-host of the podcast “The Realignment,” which analyzes the shifting allegiances of and rise of populist politics. “It basically offers the party a way of resolving the contradictions within a realigning party, that increasingly is appealing to down-market white voters and certain working-class Black and Hispanic voters, but that also has a pretty plutocratic agenda at the policy level.” In other words: Owning the libs offers bread and circuses for the pro-Trump right while Republicans quietly pursue a traditional program of deregulation and tax cuts at the policy level.
To supercharge those distractions, however, was the great innovation of Donald Trump’s presidency: He used the highest platform in the land to play shock jock 24/7, trading the radio booth for his Twitter account — thrilling his supporters by dismaying his foes. And despite Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election — and the Republican Party’s loss of control of both the House and the Senate under Trump’s leadership — the GOP has largely chosen to take his strategy and run with it, betting on a hard-charging, antagonistic rhetorical approach to deliver it back into power in Washington.
That’s led to predictable tensions, as the party’s diminishing cadre of wonky reformists lament a form of politics that seems more focused on racking up retweets and YouTube views than achieving policy goals. Even so, Trump-inspired stunt work is, for the moment, the Republican Party’s go-to political tool. “Owning the libs” is no longer the domain of its rowdy, ragged edges, it’s the party line, with the insufficiently combative seen as inherently suspect and outside the 45th president’s trusted circle of “fighters.”
But despite its hyper-modern verbiage and social media-assisted dominance, the rhetorical approach deployed by Trump and his allies has roots that go back to the beginning of the conservative movement, with a party, much as it is now, fearful of a liberal status quo it saw as hell-bent on making it obsolete.
In 1952, the political mainstream was inflamed by the boorishness and recklessness of another conservative demagogue: Wisconsin’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy, then at the height of his infamous communist “witch hunt” within the federal government. McCarthy would eventually overreach to the extent that he was overwhelmingly censured by the Senate, including roughly half of its members from his own party.
One prominent conservative willing to defend McCarthy, much to the chagrin of nearly everybody to the left of the John Birch Society, was Irving Kristol. The godfather of neoconservatism wrote contemporaneously in Commentary that “there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: He, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesman for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”
To Kristol, the certainty McCarthy signaled was worth commending, despite his argument’s lack of substance or his corrosive rhetorical style. McCarthy was a staunch anti-communist, but that was almost secondary to how thoroughly he infuriated his opponents, leaving no question as to where he stood. And given the incentives presented by social media toward ever more extreme political positions, it’s no wonder such stark, if reductive, contrasts are even more appealing today, to the extent that a spiritual heir of McCarthy’s could even win the White House.
“Irving [Kristol] wasn’t a McCarthyite, but the point is a good one,” says Goldberg. “When both sides are encouraged to take ever more extreme positions, I think for the average voter that sort of moves the Overton window a little bit where they say, ‘Look, I think Trump’s a jerk, and I don’t like what he says about immigrants, and blah, blah, blah, but at least he’s not for defunding the police, or at least he likes the American flag.’”
Kristol’s willingness to walk on the wire for such a reviled figure as McCarthy reveals another crucial element of lib-owning, beyond just its galvanizing moral clarity: its place as a tool of redoubt for those in the political and cultural minority. Take, for example, Kristol’s contemporary who perfected the art for the conservative movement’s long, dark years in the post-Goldwater wilderness — William F. Buckley, the National Review founder who relished making his foes look foolish on his long-running program “Firing Line,” and who, when asked why Robert F. Kennedy refused to appear on the program, famously responded with an impeccably troll-ish query of his own: “Why does bologna refuse the grinder?”
“Buckley had his version of ‘owning the libs,’ which was being more erudite and articulate than his interlocutors,” Goldberg says. “You take a certain satisfaction, sort of the ‘your tears are delicious’ kind of satisfaction.”
Buckley’s program lost some of its countercultural punch as the Reagan Revolution took hold in Washington, and almost inevitably, his successor George H.W. Bush’s “kinder, gentler” conservatism created an opening for those who craved redder meat.
Enter, if you will, the John the Baptist to former President Trump’s all-ownage-all-the-time messianic leadership: Rush Limbaugh.
When Limbaugh died in February after a lengthy battle with cancer, his transgressions against liberal good manners, to put it mildly, were widely noted. Limbaugh regularly filled the three daily hours of his program with invective against women, people of color, LGBTQ people and any number of other groups that didn’t include Rush Limbaugh, to the point where even he, the quintessentially self-confident blowhard, occasionally felt the need to admit he’d gone too far and apologize. But to his millions of devoted listeners, no remark was too inflammatory to be brushed aside in light of his peerless talent for owning the libs.