Briefing

Understanding President Biden's ironic alter ego 'Dark Brandon'

Is the meme a win for the Democrats — or just the internet having some fun?

You've probably heard of the anti-Biden chant, "Let's Go, Brandon." But have you heard of "Dark Brandon," the liberal counter and presidential meme du jour? If not, here's everything you need to know:

What is 'Dark Brandon'?

In short, "Dark Brandon" is a meme derived from another meme. 

In late 2021, a sports commentator erroneously assumed a crowd at a NASCAR event had been cheering "Let's Go, Brandon" — a nod to driver Brandon Brown — when the attendees had actually been cheering "F--k Joe Biden." But the innocent mix-up was soon repackaged as an irony-laden rallying call for the right, a dog whistle for the conservative community, and a funny-but-serious way to stick it to Biden without actually sticking it to Biden. It even went so far as to spawn "an entire ecosystem of coy bumper stickers and T-shirts," as well as, of course, a deluge of Republican internet content, writes The New York Times.

Now, after multiple failed attempts at reclaiming the conversation for themselves, Democrats seem to have landed on their own successful (if you'd like to call it that) "tongue-in-cheek appropriation" of the meme. Enter "Dark Brandon," a version of Biden with glowing red eyes and a conspicuous, devil-may-care attitude; a political alter ego that means business but still uses "stock Biden phrases" like "no malarkey" and "kiddo." As Slate puts it, the reconfigured meme transforms the president "from the creaky, besieged, chronically ineffective Delawarean we all know and love to a mastermind of the infernal arts."

Though it only recently gained widespread notoriety, "Dark Brandon" actually originated in early 2022 as the brainchild of the internet's "extremely online," Slate reports. The gimmick echoes what is known as the "Dark MAGA" trend, "in which alt-right dead-enders and QAnon veterans" passionately prophesize about the vengeful return of a reinvigorated President Donald Trump. Unlike the related MAGA trend, however, "Dark Brandon" was created by people who "don't really care about Joe Biden," Kaitlyn Tiffany writes for The Atlantic — rather, its makers essentially wanted to mock the "Dark MAGA" community while simultaneously leaning into the "despair" they felt about the current state of legislative affairs under Biden.

But a meme was nonetheless born in the process — and what once began as one big joke has since "developed into something that reads as more sincere," Tiffany writes.

Why has "Dark Brandon" gained popularity?

After a beleaguered start, the Biden administration is finally celebrating a number of policy wins — such as the bipartisan gun law, and the Inflation Reduction Act  — and it appears White House aides and officials are working to reclaim "Dark Brandon" and "Let's Go, Brandon" as part of the fun. Take White House staffers Andrew Bates and Rob Flaherty, for example, both of whom have shared "Dark Brandon" imagery on Twitter within the past two weeks.

A senior administration official said the White House has opted to embrace "Dark Brandon" and "to make an important point about the president delivering what they referred to as a 'staggering' amount of wins in a short period [of] time," The Hill summarizes.

Does Biden know about it?

Apparently, he does. Per a report from the Times, "[t]he president himself has seen some of the Dark Brandon memes and found them funny, according to several people close to him."

It's also not as though Biden hasn't been memed before. "During the Obama years, he was portrayed as the bumbling 'Uncle Joe,' always blurting out something off key and obsessing over his aviators and Corvette," notes Politico. As president "he's been castigated as elderly and frail and in over his head." 

Now both "Let's Go, Brandon" and "Dark Brandon" are just adding to the list.

Is "Dark Brandon" a good thing? Is it a bad thing?

Well, as with a lot of things, it depends on who you ask. 

Garbage Day's Ryan Broderick, for one, is convinced "Dark Brandon" is nothing more than an amoral internet meme lacking significance for Biden or for the Democratic Party. "As much as centrist pundits and political news sites want to act like the opposite is true," Broderick writes, "Dark Brandon is not a real or important meme. It doesn't matter and definitely isn't a win for Biden, liberals, or the Democrats' floundering status within American politics and culture ahead of this year's midterms where they're almost assuredly going to be crushed." In fact, the only realistic takeaway from "Dark Brandon" is that it serves as an example of "how little establishment centrist political media in America still understands about how this stuff works."

The Atlantic's Kaitlyn Tiffany, meanwhile, worries the meme is perhaps "an undesirable conflation of politics and fandom, and exactly the kind of behavior for which liberals look down at Trump supporters" — though political podcast host Allison Gill, whom Tiffany interviewed, sees it as "celebrating a nice guy in an ironic way."

If everyone's in on the irony, though, that could very well kill the joke, Nate Hochman argues for The National Review: "Internet culture relies on irony and a certain level of transgressiveness — a meme is funny only so long as it represents a certain kind of insider humor." 

But still, perhaps the heavily-photoshopped images nonetheless serve as "a subtle reminder to the press that, collectively, it doesn't always get Biden right," Blake Hounshell writes for The New York Times' On Politics newsletter. As Greg Schultz, a former adviser to Biden's campaign, tells Hounshell, "The Dark Brandon memes are a light take on the fact that Biden actually has abilities and power that most elected officials don't — and he wields it in his own way."

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