v. tr. To be made a fool of; To make a fool of; To confound or prove wrong; embarrassing someone: Being embarrassed.
There is a grave misunderstanding of how American politics functions. Ask anyone on the street how politics works. Money, laws passed, popular will, is what you’ll hear. But these are the tools, not the fulcrum of power.
Politics is a series of owns.
This is the ownership economy, to use Will Menaker’s phrase from Chapo Trap House. A system of owns is how politics in America works. Owns are how we got here, to this political movement.
Politics is a mediated system of power. Media positioning and consumption is largely how the democratic public is involved with the political world. We interact with politics through social media and cable TV. In those ecosystems, owning other people, and dodging being owned, is how power works.
Ownership explains how Trump, a sundowning billionaire with no interest in politics, became president. He had no discernible talent beyond roasting. That was enough. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t read: he read his opponents, all right. It explains how AOC, a freshman Congresswoman, became one of the most popular (and perhaps, influential) Representatives in the country. Mussolini said blood alone moves the wheels of history. Wrong. It’s owns.
People who wonder about Trump’s base shouldn’t. Why do they support him?
Political leadership is a contract between follower and followed. Trump does not deliver his audience dams, bridges, or public works. He doesn’t even offer them prosperity, since some Trump voters already have that. What does Trump give his followers? He owns the libs. He upsets the people his base hates. That’s what Trump does.
If you think it’s about anything else, you’re missing the point. Oh, don’t get me wrong: Trump delivers the same vampiric fondle-carnival that every GOP candidate does: tax cuts, Federalist Society ghouls appointed, endless war. But that’s just to keep the crypt mummies happy. Trump is president because the base supported him when the establishment didn’t like him. And what the base likes is him owning the libs. Trump’s base can’t get their youth back, can’t get their grandchildren to call them, can’t get a lily-white Republic, the respect of teens, Nobels, or an Academy Awards ceremony where every prize goes to Mel Gibson. But by God, they can have owns.
All of politics obeys the universal law of owns. These days, you don’t climb in power by seniority, or great works. You don’t even need a record, when you get right down to it. Beto O’Rourke almost won Texas without a record—just so Dems could own the famous serial hunter, Ted Cruz. That’s how important owning is in this society.
To win in politics, what you need is a superlative capacity to regularly, reliably, obviously own other politicians. This is universally true across all political cultures. After a half-century of super-predators, Wall Street speeches, and Iraq War votes, what is Secretary Clinton remembered for? “Delete your account.” Owns make the world go round.
In the past, people connected with politics through a variety of ways: involvement in a campaign, activism through their church, their union, town hall meetings, and, most importantly, through voting. And over 100 million people voted in the midterms—a record.
But day-to-day involvement in politics is news for nerds. In 2018, Fox News, the Great Satan itself, posted a 2.4 million audience share during primetime. According to a 2014 Atlantic piece titled “Only One Percent of Americans Are Really Politically Active,” the writer reports that “just 1 percent of Americans engage very often in eight or more [civic and politics] activities—from attending town hall meetings to volunteering in the community to giving money to a cause or political candidate. Those Americans with higher incomes or with college degrees are much more likely than those with low incomes or without college degrees to report engagement in at least one of the civic activities.”
Three factors powered this turn towards the ownership economy: social media, cable news, and Aaron Sorkin’s popularity among libs, which consists of people addressing other people with the title “Sir.” In movies, nobody ever does the hard work of wrangling votes, or knocking on doors, or making pleading calls for money. Nobody ever engages in what Lyndon Johnson called the most important part of politics—the counting.
Instead, one character makes an assertion, the other makes a cutting remark, and scene: owned! In movies—in cable TV—in social media—everything is concentrated down to a few sentences, and the most effective sentences are sentences where you own someone else.
Owning is the only formal code authorized by all parties in American life. We are all the lawyers and legislators in this system. Owning is a comprehensive, terse, interlocking worldview of mutual loathing. Engraved in its bones is the maximum law of political media: Who Owns, Wins. That’s the master-lock for our society.
Empires of study, and avalanches of funding, are made available to study ownership, and how we can best own others. It is a democratically available medium, but it is subject to the dictates of capitalism. Owning someone only works if you have other people to see it and marvel at it, and so volume is needed in inverse proportion to brevity.
Now, what is ownership? To paraphrase Elle Woods, the canons of wit are simple and finite. First, you must make someone else look like a fool, without looking so yourself.
The quickest way is to get the other person angry, while pretending not to be angry yourself. It’s also good to have an audience who will treat everything you say as holy writ, even if your owns are terrible and stupid. Hard words may work, but they aren’t vital. On certain leftist subreddits, the response to conservative posts is “Show us your hog.” MAGA CHUDs would declare: that makes no sense: why must I show you my privates? But it doesn’t have to make sense. The CHUDs still look foolish, over-concerned, effete. The narcissistic supply is cut off. Ownership is a medium controlled by emotional valence. That is why so many people pretend to be Not Mad online. But the truth is, we are all mad, all of the time. Some of us are madder than others.
Second, the additional rule of ownership is to respond quickly, and originally. Being scrupulous is not necessary. Being timely is.
Third: Ownership is very different from debate, which seems incredibly mannered—really, almost a Victorian affectation. Conservatives and liberals generally wade into ownership thinking that their rules will protect them. They will not. What is the stressed cry of “ad hominem much?” in a battle of true ownership? Nothing. Look at how viciously Ted Cruz was defeated by a contemptuous yokel during the last Presidential campaign. Cruz was never a wit, but he had some pride in his rhetorical skills. Yet he was soundly crushed and became portable property of the Trump brand.
The poor quality of debate is reciprocally illustrated by the potency of owning.
Ownership is how politicians keep score. Politicians are publicly successful until they begin to get owned. Pelosi pretends to have owned Trump. The unions actually owned Trump. But it doesn’t matter; Trump has been owned, and owned so obviously on a key issue, that his base may grow disgusted with him for the first time ever. He has not changed. His policies have not changed. But he has been obviously, irrefutably owned.
Soon, he will be yesterday’s news. And this fate is common in the ownership economy of politics.
With apologies to Melville, what is ownership to us but the only political common-ground we stand on? Owning is nine-tenths of the political law. What is the ownership economy but a grotesque aping of the capitalist society, where everyone owns someone else, and the people at the top own everyone else? Yet unlike the real-world system of capitalism, in ownership, literally anybody, whatever their larger station in life, can own.
Still: what is the Democratic Presidential nomination, but a year-long series of owns? What is High Lord Jeff Bezos’ mission in life but to own the poor grocer, drugstore-man, and bookstores? What is that great post-industrial purgatory, the YouTube comment chain, but a system of owns carried up and down the page? What is America’s empire across the seas but ownership of other powers? What is all sports, philosophy, and higher learning, but a discourse applicable to the higher study of highest owns? And what are you, reader, but owned and owning, too?