Who gets to decide what a meme means? Can a meme born in darkness — say, for instance, the racist corners of 4chan — ever come to have lighter meanings? Do we have a responsibility to purge our cultural vocabulary of memes with spurious origins, or does that just lead to the elimination of, well, all internet culture?
These are just a few of the complicated questions the rise of the “Dark Brandon” meme leads us to. In recent weeks, Democrats — including numerous politicians and White House staff members — have been using the meme, which began as an ironic take on the already-ironic “Let’s Go Brandon” meme from the right (in short, it’s code for “Fuck Joe Biden”). Attempts to reclaim “Let’s Go Brandon” for the left failed badly, but recently the “Dark Brandon” variant took off.
You may have seen Dark Brandon across the interwebs lately: a laser-eyed Joe Biden, usually presented via ancient lolcats-style image macro, probably with a reference to defeating malarkey somewhere.
The meme has really taken off over the last two weeks, trending on Twitter and drawing mockery from right-wing influencers like Ben Shapiro, while other posters complain that the libs ruined their meme. But the origin and potential cringe elements haven’t stopped many Biden supporters from wholeheartedly embracing and running with the imagery, especially since Biden himself has been riding a string of policy wins lately.
On the surface this may all just look like good, clean superhero fun. But like so much of the internet these days, the wholesome appeal masks a much more shadowy history. The irony that attaches to memes of this nature is often used, especially by the far right, to obscure and distort their underlying point — and can raise confusion about whose aims the memes are ultimately serving. But this is the internet. Is there anything we can do about that? Should we even try?
There’s a lot to unpack in a meme about an old dude with Godzilla eyes, so let’s sally forth.
Joe Biden is a famously innocuous public figure. His memeability is unexpected.
Since the 2015–16 “Deplorables” era of Trump memeing, images produced by his supporters have evoked the former president as a testosterone-fueled Rambo-style warrior, boldly riding tanks or giant bald eagles toward a hyperbolic victory over the libs, flags waving. This kind of imagery has always served Trump and his supporters well, across levels of online fluency. That’s because so much of their ideology and methodology involves coded language, dog whistles, and a grandiose aesthetic that melds easily with the kind of humor you can never be sure is real. It works whether you read it ironically or not.
By contrast, Joe Biden’s image in internet culture has long been malleable. While serving as vice president during the Obama administration, the internet embraced him as a fun-loving, relatable sidekick. The Onion famously popularized a parodied, souped-up version of Biden colloquially known as “Diamond Joe” — an everyman in a ponytail who liked Dude Things like motorcycles, tinkering with his Trans Am, and cooling his heels in Mexico for a while.
If Obama-era Biden resided somewhere between a neighborly Dad and a dril tweet, during his election campaign, Biden’s public persona was so staid and buttoned-up it seemed to do nothing to inspire his supporters to memeify him. His detractors, on the other hand, easily beat them to it by depicting him as “Creepy Uncle Joe.” Although “Sexy Joe Biden” is a whole thing, it never truly reemerged as a meme in the post-Obama era. Not even Saturday Night Live could create a parody of Biden that didn’t sink under the weight of Biden’s own perceived blandness.
The folksy, homespun Biden who calls out “malarkey” and claims to have told Vladimir Putin he has no soul isn’t a persona that easily lends itself to a political meme culture that now, more than ever, relies on layers of irony. Biden’s longest-running pop culture image, that of an older gent enjoying a vanilla cone, barely offers a counter to the hyper-aggressive “America, fuck yeah!” vibes of the average Trump meme. Like Biden himself, it’s everything Trump and his memes are not.
Still, during the Biden administration, the relatively innocuous public image that boosted his relatability with voters seems to have worked in his favor. Biden has committed to staying out of the limelight and getting work done mostly behind the scenes, allowing for the rejuvenation of his public image. Enter: popular memes that turn him into his own polar opposite, e.g., an aggressive, red-eyed, one-man army/supergenius. It was probably inevitable that internet culture weaponized in his favor would originate from — where else? — the far right.
“Dark Brandon” combines two subgenres of pro-Trump memes and attempts to subvert them both. But from there, it’s very, very complicated.
The “Let’s Go Brandon” meme originated from a reporter’s mistaken (or possibly strategic) mishearing of a crowd chant at the Talladega racetrack in October 2021. When cries of “Fuck Joe Biden!” broke out in between races, NBC’s Kelli Stavast was interviewing race winner Brandon Brown after his first career win. Stavast translated the background noise on the spot into “Let’s go, Brandon” — instantly spawning that thing Trump-loving shitposters love most: a code for something they want to say publicly but can’t, disguised as something banal.
From there, the meme took what are by now pedestrian routes into the mainstream. Trumpists used it everywhere, including in Congress, and it was immediately swallowed up in money grabs from conservative merch hawks. Liberals tried to reconfigure it into a sincere “Thank You, Brandon” meme that flopped on arrival. A linguist tried hard to make the meme sound important, like both a victory for the right and a deeper intersection of linguistics and culture than it probably was. Mostly it was predictable: It spawned a typical string of back-and-forth attempts to wrest the meme from its original ironic moorings; each served only to weaken it. In December, Forbes’ Dani Di Placido attempted to argue that “the ‘Let’s go Brandon’ movement is a sad echo of the initial confidence of the Trump movement,” one that had spun off into underwhelming bumper stickers and cringe territory.
But as always when dealing with Trumpist politics, the argument that none of this stuff is harmful was undermined by the actual harmful stuff it was (sometimes literally) adjacent to:
“Let’s go Brandon” written on sign next to Nazi symbols & flag. pic.twitter.com/eIyjd0sS1j— Scott Thuman (@ScottThuman) January 30, 2022
Separate from “Let’s Go Brandon,” extreme-right memers had been evolving a harder aesthetic from the original testosterone-laced Trump memes. “Dark MAGA” (or “DarkMAGA”) is a subgenre of right memeing that’s aesthetically more nihilist than even the typical ironic Trumpist meme. It’s like the “gritty” DCU version of a far-right meme ideology; now even edgier and more explicitly tailored for Nazis. Dark MAGA memes typically feature lots of neo-Nazi symbolism and violent, white supremacist and accelerationist messaging — think: swastika backgrounds, images of Trump as a violent dictator, and fascist rhetoric.
It’s from combining these two styles of right-wing memes that the concept of “Dark Brandon” was born, complete with grimdark Batman references.
That part is easy enough. From here on in, though, there’s no clear navigation through this meme’s history or its original intended purpose. No one is entirely sure how “Dark Brandon” began.
Some sources claim Dark Brandon began as an ironic far-right meme made by extreme conservatives who dislike Biden, molding him in their own aesthetic. Others claim it was the creation of “snarky leftists” repurposing the Dark MAGA memes in order to ironically express their own disdain for Biden. And others claim that it was the creation of leftists attempting to ironically mock Trump and his supporters by making their own version of the right’s hypermasculine memes. (One rumor that the entire meme was the work of Chinese propagandists briefly flourished thanks to Yang Quan, an artist on Chinese social app Weibo who drew propaganda art depicting Biden as the Game of Thrones-esque ruler of a horde of undead zombies. Decontextualized, the artwork became popular and joined the ranks of the Dark Biden memes. No other evidence of Chinese propaganda influencing the memes has surfaced.)
Immediately, you can probably see where complexities arise from trying to take an aesthetic linked to neo-Nazi origins and tying it to a public figure whose edgiest memes involve eating ice cream. But that hasn’t stopped Democrats and Biden fans from running with the “Dark Brandon” concept, leaving pundits divided over whether the new meme is hype or cringe.
To some degree, this is all just a return volley. The Democrats who started to run with “Dark Brandon” clearly hoped to ape the style of the edgy “Dark MAGA” memes, combining their aesthetic with depictions of Biden as a take-no-prisoners badass leader. MAGA supporters used their own over-the-top memes to reframe Trump’s perceived bumbling incompetence as a giant disguise, a foil for the competent strongman that lay beneath. Now Biden supporters are repeating the magic, framing Biden’s perceived bumbling incompetence as a mask for a tough masculine warrior who gets things done. Turnabout, fair play, etc.
Internet culture is replete with ideas absorbed from white supremacists. Should we do anything about it?
Thornier questions arise when we consider the origins of the meme. If you’re trying to meme using images that originally may have had a much more sinister context, but the original memes are still being used to sow hate and proliferate violent ideology, are you ever able to fully reclaim them for good?
White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates ran into that question earlier this week, when he shared a “Dark Brandon” meme that many conservatives believed was borrowing the Nazi reichsadler, an eagle that formed part of the German coat of arms. The meme’s creator, Tobin Stone, clarified to the Daily Dot and the Washington Post that the meme was not based in Nazi imagery and that he had used a standard American eagle.
The fact that Republicans no longer recognize one of our country's most patriotic symbols is very telling about the current state of the Republican party. pic.twitter.com/G3WM28Pz3G— Tobin Stone (@tobinjstone) August 10, 2022
This moment underscores the problem with trying to use ironic memes with nebulous and shifting meanings for sincere purposes. Attempting to use the memes without full context can often spread confusion instead of bringing clarity and purpose. And that glum truth points us toward a few larger observations about internet culture as a whole.
At some point the aims of extremist shitposters at opposite ends of the political spectrum cease being opposed and start becoming aligned. Perhaps that point arrives around the time you’re memeing the US president putting a gun in an older woman’s mouth; perhaps it arrived long before. The inability to distinguish violent neo-Nazi shitposting from snarky leftist shitposting reflects the murky internet waters in which these types of memes arise. It also reflects the murky ideological territory that sees many once-liberal public figures ultimately starting to embrace and voice extreme conservative viewpoints. The Venn diagram of ironic hyperbolic trolling and attention-grabbing political opinions that trend toward violence and white supremacy is often a circle.
At this point in the meme’s evolution, then, trying to parse the difference between a “Dark Brandon” post used unironically to further the aims of liberals and one used ironically to further the aims of neo-Nazis arguably becomes counterproductive. What we’re left with is a meme that’s carried all of this baggage into the mainstream, evolving too fast to be unpacked.
“Dark Brandon” further reflects the ugly and rarely acknowledged truth that at this point in the life of the internet, countless parts of extremist far-right language and ideas have memed their way into the mainstream. This happens organically and easily due to the intersection of the extremist far-right internet with gaming culture, geek culture, and many other cultural crossroads. It’s doubtful the average internet user who picks up language like “simp,” “Chads and Beckys,” “cuck,” “normie,” “wrongthink,” or “redpilled” really understands their deeply misogynistic and extremist origins, or cares that much if they do.
Much of this stuff is so ubiquitous that trying to clarify its insidious nature often sounds paranoid and opens you up to attack. This is the conundrum that Bloomberg’s William Turton fell into in a since-deleted tweet about “Dark Brandon.” He attempted to sound the alarm over the memes’ spurious origin — and was promptly eaten alive for trying.
“It’s honestly pretty shocking to see multiple Biden administration officials tweet out these memes — specifically the red laser eye ones — considering the meme’s roots in chan culture,” he wrote. “The connotation is not very appealing.” Turton referred to the longstanding internet forum 4chan, which has played a role in the formative development of nearly every part of internet culture, including giving rise to modern right-wing internet culture.
The vast majority of respondents mocked and belittled Turton. Many understandably blasted the idea that “chan culture” is inherently problematic or toxic, with some people, including the Post’s gaming journalist Gene Park, further noting the boundless spread of this type of humor and the impossibility of scrubbing it from the internet.
yep I’m sorry but memes are memes. Chan culture in and of itself isn’t inherently “bad.” Clutching pearls about it now is about 15 years too late.— Gene Park (@GenePark) August 8, 2022
Perhaps the only thing to do, then, is to meme warily, meme defensively: If you’re going to start creating or sharing fun Biden image macros, make sure their symbols aren’t indecipherable from Nazi regalia. If you’re going to start using a phrase you picked up from your local Discord, make sure your local Discord isn’t borrowing it from, idk, an enclave of white nationalists. And yes, that does rob being online of much of its spontaneity and free-wheeling joy, and it does often feel like a pointless, fruitless, solitary endeavor. But what are the other options?
At least “Dark Brandon” provides us with something wild and rare: a template for wielding ironic internet humor in the service of progressive values and ideals, rather than letting internet Nazis direct our cultural language and march us all closer to fascism. We may never be able to completely extricate this meme, and others likely to follow in its wake, from the clutches of the far right. It’s less clear that weaponizing ironic humor for positivity and wholesome values is even sustainable. But by reclaiming “Dark Brandon,” Democrats are at least trying. That’s something new and something that’s probably worth celebrating; a win for the internet. For now.