January 18, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Behind ‘Owning the Libs’? Sadism

Enjoying others' pain is today's Republican ideology.

Share this article

The president’s response to Nancy Pelosi is another opportunity to talk about sadism and its role as the prevailing principle animating the base of the Republican Party.

Donald Trump canceled Pelosi’s military flight to Afghanistan while she was waiting on a bus ready to take her to the airport. The move came a day after she uninvited the president from delivering the State of the Union address. (The Post reported this morning that House Democrats had planned to fly commercial but didn’t due to leaks—including from the president himself!—compromising their security.)

But unlike Pelosi’s letter, Trump’s letter didn’t have a base of reasoning, as the Post’s Philip Bump explained Thursday. She said the government shutdown undermined efforts to provide adequate security. Trump didn’t need reasons for grounding Pelosi, because reasons weren’t the point. The point was throwing punches, Bump said.

Trump’s candidacy and his presidency are largely predicated on being the guy who picks the fights that commentators in conservative media say should be picked. The appeal of “owning the libs” — smacking down liberal political opponents or, more broadly, the elitists with whom the liberal population is believed to overlap — has enormous traction in some circles, including in much of Trump’s base.

I don’t disagree with Bump. I do think, however, that he and other elite journalists are not seeing, or haven’t yet seen, what’s behind “owning the libs.” It’s sadism.

It’s taking pleasure from seeing others suffer. It’s punishing those who “deserve it” and getting a thrill from seeing “justice” of such punishment rendered. You could say that they’re just being assholes, and you’d be right. But being an asshole is not an ideology whose contours we can try to understand. Republican sadism, however, is.

I have said that conservatism has always been sadistic, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. It’s possible to be conservative while being fully committed to full political equality. But such conservatism is almost always theoretical, the product of academics making arguments for their own reasons or partisans putting a gloss on power politics.

Such conservatism is rarely seen in the natural world. There, you find what the Times uncovered last week when a reporter asked a Trump supporter how she feels about the government being shut down while Florida is still recovering from the last hurricane.

“I voted for [Trump], and he’s the one who’s doing this. I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”

What you can say fairly is that conservatism has always featured elements of sadism. The American South’s history of constructing a sub-nation within a nation dedicated to preserving the institutions of slave society is a case in point. State’s rights, limited government, decentralized power, and local control—these and other anti-Federalist principles I have no doubt were genuinely held. It’s just that they were genuinely held along with the genuinely held belief that non-white people are sub-human.

Trump’s genius was seeing the difference, and discarding the half he had no use for. The president is a fraud, so he believes everyone else is too. Only Republican elites care about all that conservatism stuff. Your basic Republican voter doesn’t. Pick fights. Punch first. Own the libs. That’s all they care about. Trump was right.

Make no mistake. Sadism appeals greatly even to self-identified “Never Trump” conservatives, or to conservatives in the national media who are smart enough to understand the social utility of disapproving of this president. Normally, this is a veiled nuance, but occasionally the veil comes off, as it did yesterday.

Erick Erickson, an evangelical Christian Trump-skeptic, loved—just loved!—the president’s response to Pelosi. In a post titled “This Letter From Trump to Pelosi May Be the Greatest Letter of His Presidency,” he wrote: “His letter is hilarious.”

Read it for yourself. It’s not.

Actual suffering isn’t required for sadists to derive pleasure. Pelosi did not suffer from the president’s grounding of her military flight, because she wasn’t taking a military flight. Doesn’t matter. These people live in make-believe. Make-believe is “hilarious.”

Looking for actual suffering misses a subtlety. It doesn’t matter that most of the world saw Trump’s letter, and said: My God, how petty! What matters is that inside the club, it was a total own! Remember: fighting isn’t the same as winning. But Republican sadists can’t tell the difference. To them, fighting is winning, even when they lose.

Sadism was socially acceptable, to use Richard Rorty’s phrasing, until the civil rights era and the subsequent trend toward full, or at least fuller, political equality. By Reagan’s time, Republicans had figured out how to talk to their base without sounding like unreconstructed Dixiecrats. As long as sadism was coded, it was acceptable.

The question, since 2016, has been whether that changed. Trump’s victory suggested it didn’t need to be coded. Sadism that used to lurk in respectable Republican circles came out in the open and usurped those very same respectable Republicans. But as Rorty might have said, experience has taught the country a lesson, especially respectable Republicans who at one point denied sadism in their ranks.

A majority does not like a president flouting the rule of law, skimming the public till, and governing with impunity. A majority does not like a president who sides with white supremacists and anti-Semites. A majority does not like taking children away from immigrant mothers at the border. It does not take pleasure in others’ pain.

I don’t know if sadism will be defeated or merely put back in the closet.

But I do know it can’t stay out here.

—John Stoehr

Welcome, new readers!

So many people are signing up for the Editorial BoardIt’s a beautiful thing! Even more beautiful would be people subscribing. That would be downright sublime!

So … you know what to do. Click the red button below. Plug in your info. Voila! And thanks for making this crazy train a little more sane. —JS

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bennett on July 30, 2021 at 7:21 am

    John, as always, exactly right on the modern Republican penchant for sadism, much of it now tied to reality TV / cable news emphasis on the dramatic conflict always having an exhibitionist / spectacle element now embedded. (It’s just part of our contemporary makeup now, sadly enough.) I’m hoping you’ll also take a look at the other side of this aspect in another post–the masochistic element that has wended its way into the modern Republican psyche and the limits on it. From Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, I still shake my head on how much pain are Republican voters willing to tolerate–which may be the same thing as asking how much cognitive dissonance can this segment of the population absorb–before reconciling themselves to the need to change their voting patterns. (Note I emphasize change, not switch: Republicans can just as easily opt not to vote at all as vote against their party.) There is an element here of the scorpion riding the fox’s back and stinging the fox as it swims across the river and drowns with the scorpion. Just before they go down: “Why did you do that?” asked the fox. “It’s in my nature,” replied the scorpion. Perhaps there is something there–or not–especially in light of recent polls indicating attrition in Trump’s voter base.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.