Let's Go, Dark Brandon
Politics in a meme era means the politics of memes
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the politics of Dark Brandon.
But first: Happy Resignation Day! It’s been 48 years since Richard Nixon resigned the office of president, effective at noon Eastern time on August 9, 1974. Celebrate this delivery from our long national nightmare with 18.5 minutes of silence.
Let's Go, Dark Brandon
In the autumn of 2021, a misheard chant at a NASCAR rally became the basis for one of the most tiresome memes in our tiresome era of politics. As everyone knows by now, a crowd at Talladega was chanting “Fuck Joe Biden” while reporter Kellie Stavast was interviewing driver Brandon Brown. The crowd, Kellie charmingly if naively told Brown, was chanting “Let’s go, Brandon!”
This moment went viral among conservatives online. “Let’s go, Brandon” became a conservative catchphrase because—get this—it means something rude. (The crudity of the current political moment means I have to repeat what the phrase means—but only once.) If you’re in red, or even slightly purple, parts of the United States, you’ve likely encountered the flags, mugs, keychains, T-shirts, and (Zeus help us) songs. Perhaps most notoriously, Jared Schmeck of Oregon used the phrase while he was on the phone with the president himself. Biden, apparently oblivious to the sophomoric insult, responded “Let’s go, Brandon, I agree.” (Schmeck initially told the media he didn’t mean it as an insult but later came out as an election truther in an interview on Steve Bannon’s podcast.)
Every administration produces in-jokes among the opposition party. (The Twitter account G.W. Bush-era Leftism records liberals’ worst efforts from the Bush 43 era.) “Let’s go Brandon” is probably among the, if not the, most commercially successful of these, the right-wing ecology having proven surprisingly adept at turning “I support the current thing” into a variety of merchandise—a nifty brand extension to MAGA caps and Trump flags.
Partisans of the governing party always find these in-jokes enormously tedious. “Let’s go Brandon” is somewhat more deserving of the tedious tag than most, not least because beyond the vulgar referent it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a flat rejection of Biden, not of his policies or his choices. In many ways, when one listen to right-wingers explain Brandonism, one gets the idea that this is a conservative version of making up a guy to get mad at. Are we supposed to be angry at Sleepy Joe because he … stole the election? Kinda seems like he’s not sleepy, or befuddled, or any of the other insults that get hurled his way by folks hoisting Brandon flags.
But this newsletter isn’t about that. What’s more interesting is the semiotics of the new Dark Brandon meme, a leftist joke appropriated—well, really expropriated—this weekend by pro-Biden social media users (including some White House staffers). Dark Brandon shares roots with Brandon, of course, but it’s also inspired by a Chinese artist’s depiction of the president as a king of hell.
The image eventually percolated into American social media feeds, helped along by accounts like @Neoliberal, who, accurately, noted that the image “just makes Biden seems metal af”.
The image is often described as “Chinese propaganda” (including by official GOP spokespeople) but that’s not entirely accurate, at least according to one plausible account on Reddit. (Hey, doing research about the lives of memes means you need to accept that the best sources aren’t publishing in the American Sociological Review.) Rather, the original image is by an online artist, Yang Quan, not a technical propagandist, and depicts Biden as a king of zombie Chinese public intellectuals, the real target of the image. As the Redditor explains, the image emerged after Biden’s election but before he had taken office:
The discourse is that many Chinese public intellectuals falsely believe that with the election of Biden, Chinese-American relations will magically improve again. The subtext is that these netizens have long felt these intellectuals are looking for a chance to sellout Chinese interests to American elites (a close mirror of analogous tropes in US political discourse). Thus the intellectuals are portrayed as mindless "zombies" climbing out of the woodwork with the ascent of their "king."
In other words, it’s no surprise that Biden looks metal af: he’s supposed to! He’s the bad guy! My loose translation is that this is something like if Chinese netizens took Ben Garrison cartoons as a statement of the U.S. media’s evaluation of, well, Biden.
Wrenched from this juxtaposition of a figure Americans regard as (if they’re Democrats) mild-mannered Joe with the army of the undead (intellectuals) comes the the idea of Biden as Dark Brandon—a shadowy figure who masterfully directs all to his evil ends.
Dark Brandon is the winking inverse not of Let’s Go, Brandon, but of the Trump-era Q memes. Instead of sincerely seeing Trump as some sort of crusader against adenochrome harvesting pedophiles on behalf of John Kennedy, Jr., (and, yes, that’s a real set of Q beliefs), Dark Brandon is a way of comically explaining the continually frustrating setbacks of ordinary governing by Middle-Class Joe as the distraction from the real, effective Darth Biden. It’s a joke that, until last week’s shocking string of successes, was born out of dismay at how little progress seemed to have been made on the major promises of the 2020 campaign—something especially frustrating given the seemingly enormous power that Democratic control of Congress should have conferred to enact Biden’s agenda.
Until, that was, Joe Manchin decided to pump-fake Senate Republicans and worked with Chuck Schumer to pass first the CHIPS Act and then reconciliation. All of a sudden, the mains were back online and Biden’s legislative agenda could accelerate to warp speed. And Dark Brandon went mainstream really fast. Like, Senators posting Dark Brandon memes fast.
It’s almost certainly a coincidence that this all peaked the day the FBI raided Trump’s outpost at Mar-a-Lago (or at least the Dark One would make it seem so).
Some people online have complained about the Dark Brandon memes. In particular, complaints that these memes reflect a cult of personality or—even more ludicrously—lurking fascist tendencies ignore how meaning-making works. Dark Brandon memes were not, originally, triumphalist. They were at best bitter defenses for a hard core of Too Online liberals right up until the previous 96 hours. Google Trends shows that searches for “Dark Brandon” only overtook the original flavor on Friday.
Their spike coincides with some very public victories for Biden’s agenda, although one in which the president seems to be more beneficiary than actor. (Reporting suggests that Manchin’s support was a Senate deal, not anything helped along by the White House, with whom Manchin’s relations are said to be notoriously poor.) One year, six months, and 18 days into his administration, Biden finally got a big piece of his legislative agenda through—and through, let’s remember, just one house (the House doesn’t vote until Friday and there’s still many chances for things to go wrong!).
Biden may now look like one of the most legislatively productive presidents in recent history, but even a month ago that was far from assured. In fact, a month ago, memes celebrating the unlikely figure of Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker enjoyed their own brief moment:
In this context, a brief spate of silly enthusiasm for a parody of an omnipresent and threatening slogan seems like the output of a relief valve for the people who can explain to you what budget reconciliation is. (Biden is, let’s remember, no stranger to memeification, having spent the Obama years being reconstructed as the good ol’ boy Diamond Joe by the satirical outlet The Onion—an image that probably did much to repair the reputation of the longtime Washington insider with a generation too young to remember his first run for the White House.) It’s an online embrace of a president that a great many people had placed high hopes in but who had felt dismayed by what they were getting. And, at the same time, normie libs and senators alike could take Brandon away from the people who mean it as a threat.
(One critique of the meme that might have teeth would go something like this. Presidents, whatever their professions, aren’t your friends. The Dark Brandon meme gets a lot of its humor from Biden’s public persona as a genial grandfatherly type, but that’s both not who Biden himself is, or at least not the whole truth, and it’s also distinctly not who President Joseph Biden is. Clad in immense power—both over the government and over the physical continuation of human life on Earth, literally—Biden can’t be your friend or pal. To the extent that memes serve to distract us from the truth of the presidency’s immense importance, they do democracy a disservice. And yet in this case I don’t think there’s any more danger of losing perspective than there normally is among the motivated reasoning of presidential supporters, inasmuch as, again, this moment of Brandonhood emerged from a struggle to craft a piece of legislation and the meme itself long reflected frustration rather than affection.)
Peak Dark Brandon coincided with news that election truther Kari Lake won the Arizona GOP nomination for governor and that Trump’s relations with his generals were even worse than the public knew while he was in office (or, more important, running for re-election). Dark Brandon memes will be saved to the desktop of the future creator of the Biden-Era Memes TikTok account to be recycled under the Pompeo administration. In the meantime, Dobbs is the law of the land, Democrats face at best an uphill climb to retain the House, and Trump might be president again. Against those odds, Dark Brandon has his work cut out for him.
But please, Dark Master, save us from the true evil: