The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Dark Brandon meme can’t escape death

As a Democratic candidate, Joe Biden stops for an ice cream cone in Iowa in 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Have you met Dark Brandon? You’d know it if you had. White hair atop his head and lasers shooting from his eyes, he radiates menace and abhors malarkey. He can create countless jobs with a flick of his fingers, and smite al-Qaeda leaders with the lightning that flies from his open palms.

He is Joe Biden, and at the same time, he is everything not Joe Biden. Which is exactly why this should-be-cringeworthy meme, against all odds, works.

Dark Brandon came from normal Brandon — a presidential alter ego conjured up by right-wing critics after an NBC Sports reporter interviewing NASCAR driver Brandon Brown jokingly interpreted a “F--- Joe Biden” chant from the crowd as “Let’s go, Brandon!” This coy non-vulgar vulgarity made its way onto T-shirts and even into the House of Representatives.

Dark Brandon also came from China, where an illustrator named Yang Guan posted on social media a bunch of cartoon hellscapes featuring President Biden. “The sleeping king ascends the throne, the devils is resurrected,” reads one caption. Sounds evil. And also sort of badass. These traits, applied to a politician widely regarded by the younger generation as anodyne to the point of being basically inert, constitute a ready-made comedy.

You don’t usually see funny, insult-free memes about Biden, and you certainly don’t see them popularized by the extremely online — generally skeptical of the nation’s more or less moderate leader. Yet Dark Brandon is an exception. That’s because the riff, driven largely by the edge-lording left, conveniently manages to mock conservatives and mainstream liberals all at once.

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Dark Brandon mocks conservatives because, first of all, “Let’s go, Brandon!” is lame. Somehow it has become a rallying cry for MAGA boosters who believe it is devastatingly insulting to the current occupant of the Oval Office, yet pay any attention to the substance of the gibe and you’ll realize there is none. Dark Brandon also mocks conservatives because the most devoted Donald Trump acolytes act — mortifyingly — as though their own idol possesses hyper-natural powers.

Cynical, ironic Dark Brandon memes borrow the imagery of entirely earnest Trump memes: casting their subject, in effect, as a demigod or a World Wrestling Entertainment star depending on the day.

Dark Brandon mocks liberals because liberals have a matching tendency to treat Biden as, if not a mythical antihero with a master-plan agenda his enemies have no hope of thwarting, at least some sort of pop star. They love to share photos of the president wearing aviators, or licking an ice cream cone, or doing both at once. They talked during the 2020 campaign about “clapbacks” the then-candidate sent his opponent’s way, totally owning him.

The meme also works because its premise is so absurd: This man, the ice-cream guy who fell off his bike in June while cycling up to greet well-wishers and blamed it on the bike’s toe cages, is big and strong and compellingly malevolent?

There’s a problem, though, and it stems from an unavoidable reality of the internet. Everything ironic eventually becomes genuine, if you wait long enough for the normies to discover it. Think of consummate normie Hillary Clinton sending “Mean Girls” GIFs at her 2016 election opponent, or telling him to “delete your account.” Think of this same White House enlisting Gen-Z comedian Benny Drama for a sketch in an attempt to speak the language of his demographic.

This is the way a meme ends: its nihilism co-opted into earnestness by embarrassingly sincere lookers-on not online enough to know better, and trying too hard. See White House staff secretary Neera Tanden, tweeting in response to a post from a journalist declaring lasers shooting from the eyes a statement of administration policy, “This is an official position.” To make matters worse, she added: “Just kidding.”

The issue isn’t the mere reality that establishment actors have adopted an originally anti-establishment bit. The issue is that too many of them don’t get the joke is on them — that in many cases they like Dark Brandon not because they think the idea that Biden could ever be cool is unbelievable, but because they believe that Biden is, indeed, cool. And if Dark Brandon transforms from parody imbued with implicit eye-rolling to enthusiastic exaggeration of the president’s capabilities, there’s no joke there at all anymore.

So, the comedy has turned to tragedy, and if Dark Brandon isn’t dead yet, he probably will be soon. An additional hazard for the hipper, nihilistic early adopters of this trend, assuming everything ironic on the internet does really become genuine: If they’re not careful, maybe they’ll start liking Biden, too.