Politics & Policy

The Perils of ‘Owning’ the Libs

President Trump speaks to supporters at a rally in Duluth, Minn., June 20, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trolling can enrage the Left, which might feel great, but what if it drives Democrats to the polls?

On Monday evening, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley spoke before Turning Point USA’s High School Leadership Summit. There, she explained to the students that the attraction of conservatism shouldn’t be “owning the libs,” in the popular parlance; instead, conservatives should try to convince. She explained, “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?”

The blowback from the Trumpian right was swift. Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars tweeted, “Nikki Haley is incredibly stupid.” Breitbart headlined, “Nikki Haley Scolds Students.”

That same day, the Trump announced via his press secretary that he was considering whether to revoke the security clearances for a bevy of former Obama officials, some of whom had already lost their security clearances. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) downplayed the threat, saying, “I think he’s just trolling people, honestly.”

All of which raises a question: Is owning the libs a worthwhile goal?

Clearly, Republicans are enjoying the sensation, which probably boosts President Trump’s popularity. Here’s the process for how to own a lib, by the current logic: First, you say something that “triggers the libs”; then, when they make clear that they’re triggered, you mock them; then, by virtue of your mockery, you own them. What you choose to do with the libs you own is irrelevant; mere pride of ownership is the important thing.

Victory over the Left isn’t enhanced by nasty behavior meant to elicit tears; it’s enhanced only by defeating arguments while using the minimum necessary force.

There’s a feeling of turnabout as fair play that’s driving much of this. After decades of sneering from Hollywood and contempt from Democrats, Republicans feel a certain surge of primal joy at watching leftists get angry. We felt this way when Jon Stewart mocked us; now we’ll mock them. That’s understandable. But the question isn’t whether to anger the Left — it’s how. Haley suggests that solid argumentation is the best way, since it promotes the possibility that the good-hearted liberal may change his or her mind, even if it angers hard-core leftists. A solid base of Trump supporters believes that good-hearted liberals are in short supply, and that we might as well have fun watching heads explode.

Now, I’m no stranger to the rhetoric of lib ownership; my website, Daily Wire, offers “LEFTIST TEARS (hot or cold)” tumblers with an annual subscription. But I do fear that if the tumbler fills due solely to “triggering” behavior, actual aggregate ownership of libs will decline, not rise. Victory over the Left isn’t enhanced by nasty behavior meant to elicit tears; it’s enhanced only by defeating arguments while using the minimum necessary force. That doesn’t mean running away from arguments — it means making them. “Triggering” requires little skill or knowledge. Argumentative victory requires both.

That’s why triggering and memery are so popular these days. They’re fun and easy (and hell, I’d be a hypocrite not to note that I occasionally stray into this territory when I believe the extremism of the Left simply requires mockery). It’s a shortcut to watching the frustration of your enemies made manifest.

But there are two types of political frustration. The first earns ire and backlash; the second earns apathy and backtracking. Only the second is worth earning. Jon Stewart, for all the groans of annoyance he caused among right-wingers, brought frustration of the first kind: He helped drive angry Republicans to the polls, where they won sweeping victories over Democrats in Congress and in the states and, finally, in a presidential election. Ronald Reagan brought frustration of the second type to Democrats: a feeling of resigned futility that led to massive electoral defeats for Democrats.

President Trump is closer to Stewart than Reagan. Democrats aren’t enervated. They’re excited. They’re enraged. And those who focus on Trump’s unending ability to “own the libs” might find, to their great regret, that he’s merely renting the libs — and that when the bill comes due, there will be a comeuppance.

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