Dark Brandon, explained
Not the hero America deserves, but the hero it needs
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, unquestionably the most online member of the Democratic caucus, if not the entire Senate, reacted to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 by tweeting an image that would doubtless puzzle many of his constituents in the leafy suburbs of the Nutmeg State. It’s a cartoon face, recognizably in the likeness of Joe Biden, but with glowing yellow orbs where his eyes belong.
This is the canonical form of Dark Brandon, who can also be found seated atop a throne of assault rifles.
Rob Flaherty, the White House’s digital director and most online member, followed Murphy’s tweet with a laser-eyes version of Dark Brandon, signaling the meme’s acceptance in mainstream circles. Just a few days earlier, a political appointee in an executive branch agency told me the worst part of his job is that he’d get in trouble for posting Dark Brandon memes. It’s possible that the game has now changed, though for the sake of the meme, I think it would be best if the White House officials kept their hands off it in the future.
But this of course raises the question — who is Dark Brandon? Why is he taking over the internet?
It’s a bit of a tangled web, involving the ironic reappropriation of the conservative “Let’s Go Brandon” meme paired with the ironic reappropriation of an unrelated Chinese propaganda meme, arguably blended with some alt-right influences. It also draws conceptually on a longer set of tropes dating back to Biden’s time as vice president and even to Reagan-era Saturday Night Live sketches.
But the meme is also popular due to the sheer scarcity of memes in this conceptual space. The “normie Democrat” — who likes Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and thinks the orange man is really bad and attended the Women’s March in 2017 while knowing nothing about the radical politics and leadership infighting beneath the surface — is the dark matter of American politics, exerting a powerful gravitational pull on events but nearly invisible in the media and on the internet. Normie Democrat politics skews older, female, and fundamentally not that online. But it also espouses an ideology, small-c conservative and incrementalist, that is fundamentally uncool and non-memeable.
Compared to socialism or MAGA conservatism, there is just fundamentally less material to work with. And that’s especially true now that its apotheosis is Biden rather than the younger, cooler Obama. So when a good Biden meme finally took off, it stood out.
And its meaning is fundamentally aspirational. The criticism of Biden that most stings the people who genuinely like and admire him is that he’s too old and too ineffectual — these are things Biden supporters genuinely worry about because they want him to succeed. But while Biden critics sometimes wield this insult skillfully, they also can’t help but reveal that they fundamentally don’t want Biden to succeed and see him as threatening. Critiques that depict Biden as scary are thus ripe for reappropriaton because they speak to Biden fans’ deepest insecurities.
“Let’s Go Brandon” and Dark MAGA
Formally speaking, Dark Brandon is the collision of two different right-wing memes: “Let’s Go Brandon” and Dark MAGA.
The former originated in fall of 2021 when conservative sports fans began chanting “fuck Joe Biden” at select events. This was particularly prominent at NASCAR races, which attract a more conservative fan base than most sporting events, and reached an amusing apogee on October 2 as Kelli Stavast was interviewing Brandon Brown after his victory at the Sparks 300 race. Inappropriate-for-broadcast “fuck Joe Biden” chants were audible in the background, and Stavast incorrectly explained that the crowd was chanting “let’s go Brandon.”
This was an objectively funny thing to happen on live television, and it swiftly became a right-wing shibboleth.
Liberals generally found the popularity of “Let’s Go Brandon” puzzling since, at the end of the day, this is a free country and nobody is stopping you from saying “fuck Joe Biden” if you want to. What they are missing is that Stavast’s error aligned with the larger conservative paranoia that the media and some hazily defined establishment are biased, out to get them, and covering for Biden. Many of the most popular conservative memes embody this fantasy that conservative politics is an embattled underground movement rather than one that can take advantage of the structural biases of the American political system and the loyal support of America’s main business groups.
To the extent that there was any progressive response to this, the initial version was largely prissy complaints about the vulgarity. But another, smarter memetic response was simply to posit that “Brandon” is a nickname for Joe Biden and that saying “let’s go Brandon” cheers him on.
At around this same time, a handful of right-wing internet personalities started posting “Dark MAGA” memes depicting Trump or Trump-aligned figures with laser eyes or otherwise taking violent revenge on their enemies. This was not a particularly popular or prominent meme, though it generated some scandalized coverage in liberal outlets.
But in May, Rep. Madison Cawthorn reacted to his primary defeat by posting on Instagram that “the time for genteel politics as usual as come to an end. It’s time for the rise of the new right, it’s time for Dark MAGA to truly take command. We have an enemy to defeat, but we will never be able to defeat them until we defeat the cowardly and weak members of our own party. Their days are numbered. We are coming.”
Nothing actually came of this because Cawthorn is a clown. But amidst these two right-wing memes, Dark Brandon got a name. But his face, like so much else these days, was made in China.
Joe Biden, the Prince of Hell
On Election Day 2020, a Chinese artist named Yang Quan posted a series of images on Weibo titled “The Sleeping King ascends the Throne, the Evil Spirit is Resurrected” (睡王登基，恶鬼复活).
In terms of Chinese discourse, this was meant as an intervention in intra-PRC debates about the stakes in the 2020 presidential race. One mainstream line of thought among PRC intellectuals was that a Biden victory would lead to an improvement in U.S.-Chinese relations. Chinese hawks, by contrast, believed (rightly, as it turns out) that for all the ways that Biden and Trump differ, they would take similar lines on China.
Yang’s images show Biden surrounded by zombies and seated on a throne of assault rifles.
This is, in turn, a riff on George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” books (and the popular television adaptation) in which the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros sits upon an Iron Throne that is made up of the partially melted swords of his ancestors’ vanquished enemies. In Martin’s case, the reason said ancestors were able to melt the swords is that they rode dragons.
In Biden’s case, it’s a little less clear why, but he looks cool as hell.
Chinese propaganda is fundamentally focused on a domestic audience, so the fact that this made Biden look like an awesome badass to Americans did not bother Yang too much. But in May 2021, the Biden-friendly @ne0liberal Twitter account observed “apparently this is Chinese anti-Biden propaganda, but it kinda just makes Biden seem metal af.”
It took months for this image to merge with the Dark MAGA memes and the Biden-as-Brandon idea to become the Dark Brandon we know and love today. And Dark Brandon himself remained an extremely niche figure until extremely recently.
I first saw him discussed as gasoline prices started to fall in early July, then the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri led to an intense surge of Dark Brandon memes.
And then it really skyrocketed as Biden put together a string of legislative successes.
Still, it’s telling that among all the Dark Brandon images, the best ones are the still the ones created by a Chinese guy trying to say that Biden is bad. Not because Biden is bad or because Biden’s allies are bad. But because the thing Biden fans most want to be true is that his enemies fear him.
Milquetoast moderate or MAGA-slayer
Consider this Dark Brandon meme that I have posted personally, alleging that Biden is building a shadow army. It’s just literally a screenshot from a video Ted Cruz tweeted to complain about the Inflation Reduction Act’s provisions funding the tax police in order to raise revenue and slow demand.
As with the Chinese images, it’s appealing to Biden voters precisely because this kind of alarmist imagery cuts against the notion of “Sleepy Joe” Biden who is weak and ineffectual.
For people predisposed to liking Biden, the criticism of him as ineffective stings. It stings because we want to see him succeed. It stings because it is true, factually, that he is quite old. And it is true that many progressives harbor fundamental suspicion that moderate Democrats stand for weakness rather than pragmatism.
When conservatives articulate fear of Biden rather than contempt, that makes him look strong and makes Biden voters happy.
Dark Brandon is, in this sense, structurally similar to Dark MAGA. But it fundamentally works better as Dark Brandon because soft Trump voters don’t actually worry that Trump isn’t ruthless enough. What bothers anti-anti-Trump conservatives about Trump is the sense that he’s too selfish; that he fights on his own behalf in ways that undermine the Republican Party or the larger conservative movement. Dark MAGA works for grifters and opportunists, but Dark Brandon speaks to the real hopes, fears, and aspirations of moderate Democrats who truly want to believe that Bidenism is quietly a more hard-edged approach to politics than it superficially seems.
The paradox of Bidenism
It’s worth recalling that while Biden was a well-known figure on the D.C. scene for decades, most younger Americans’ introduction to Biden was as a comic relief figure during the Obama administration.
The general sense I got covering the Obama White House was that Biden was a genuinely well liked but not necessarily deeply respected member of the team. It’s not a coincidence that Hillary Clinton, rather than Biden, was tapped as Obama’s de facto successor. And while Biden’s decision not to run in 2016 was formally linked to the tragic death of his son, it’s hard to miss the reality that senior Obama administration figures were not exactly begging him to run. And yet in retrospect, it is very widely (and I think correctly) believed that had Biden run in 2016, he would have won and set the country on a much better course.
Biden was memed at the time in The Onion as “Diamond Joe” the President of Vice.
He was a comic figure known for his gaffes and for being captured on a hot mic calling the Affordable Care Act “a big fucking deal.” In one of those gaffes, he admitted that he supported same-sex marriage equality — becoming the first leading national Democrat to publicly affirm a position that was privately widespread among party leaders. By breaking the seal on this, he initiated a stampede and kind of wrecked the Obama administration’s internal deliberations on how to flip-flop on this topic. And yet by gaffe-ing, he helped usher in the signature social policy revolution of our era.
By somewhat the same token, the paradox of Biden’s recent run of legislative wins is that he hasn’t really been visibly involved in them. For much of the key period, he was literally isolating with Covid-19.
But more broadly, he hasn’t been out wielding the bully pulpit. There are no reports of him being personally immersed in negotiating the details. And executive branch officials have been steering well clear of the limelight, offering few public details about their involvement and not seeking credit for specific ideas or initiatives. This reflects best practices for presidential involvement in the legislative process — be constructive wherever possible while recognizing that it’s very hard for public involvement to be constructive — but it’s also sort of odd.
A generation ago, Saturday Night Live had a “President Reagan, Mastermind” sketch toying with the idea that Reagan only played cluelessness in public, while behind the scenes he manipulated all events.
At the time, this was seen as broad satire, but today I think it’s widely agreed that Reagan was, in fact, a highly effective president and that his public disengagement from some of the details of policymaking, whether sincere or feigned, was part of that efficacy. Dark Reagan worked his magic by offering a consistent thumb on the scales in favor of lower taxes and deregulation, paired with winning elections by convincing margins. Today, Biden’s approval ratings remain poor. But with some key legislative wins under his belt and global commodity prices apparently falling, there’s a chance Dark Brandon can pull off something similar.