The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brandon returns, darkly: Democrats turn an insult into a pro-Biden meme

With “Let’s go, Brandon,” Biden’s critics found a way to curse him. His supporters are seizing on the “Dark Brandon” meme to vaunt his superpowers.

President Biden on Aug. 7. In memes, his supporters are depicting him with laser eyes and lightning powers. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

It’s not President Biden as many have come to know him. He’s not the aviator-wearing average Joe with familiar family folkisms, the grandpa who plays with his dogs, the ice cream aficionado.

In one image, he is in a lifeguard chair, lightning bolts coming out of his hands as he declares, “Let there be jobs!” In another, he’s sitting in a chair that evokes Game of Thrones. In yet more, his eyes are glowing with lasers, or he is bearded and wearing an eye patch. At times there is rubble in his wake.

Meet Dark Brandon.

Over the past few weeks, Democrats have attempted to co-opt one of the most searing catchphrases that Republicans have pinned on Biden, turning the “Let’s go, Brandon” meme around and reclaiming it as their own version of Biden fan fiction.

The new liberal-driven meme is meant to depict Biden as having superpowers, able to smite an al-Qaeda leader and pass legislation through Congress with ease.

Rather than an ineffective president inspiring Republican vitriol and earning historically low approval ratings, he is a superhero familiar with the dark arts and able to change the course of history.

The tone reflects the shift in outlook at the White House, from a struggle to accomplish items on Biden’s agenda to a mood of more swaggering confidence. The imagery, which has roots among anti-Biden users on social media, has quickly gone from some of the far corners of the internet into more mainstream use by administration officials, liberal commentators and U.S. senators.

“Dark Brandon is crushing it,” tweeted deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates, with an image of Biden with pupil-less red eyes and text that reads, “Your malarkey has been going on for long enough, kiddo.”

Rob Flaherty, the White House’s director of digital strategy, also tweeted an image of Biden smiling with red eyes, his hair haloed against a dark background. He did it on his official White House account, he wrote, to ensure that it goes into the historical archives.

Some have added Biden-isms to the memes (“Dark Brandon said ‘here’s the deal’ and then there was a deal,” wrote Megan Apper, a senior adviser in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs at the State Department). Others in the White House have openly ruminated about changing their Twitter biographies to state that they work for “Dark Brandon” rather than the 46th president of the United States.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) posted an image of Dark Brandon after the Senate approved the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which includes a number of key Biden priorities.

Imagery around Biden has taken different forms in recent years. During his time as vice president, the satirical Onion portrayed him as a sort of goofy uncle who washed his car shirtless in the White House driveway, while “Saturday Night Live” imitations played up his toothy smile.

To his supporters, he has often been a cool yet folksy guy wearing aviator sunglasses and driving a Corvette. To his critics, he is the bumbling, gaffe-prone elderly president who recently fell off his bike.

Early in his presidency, the “Let’s go, Brandon” tag tapped into the invective that many Republicans were aiming at Biden.

The phrase originated with a vulgar chant that broke out in October 2021 at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway. The crowd was screaming “F--- Joe Biden!,” but an NBC Sports reporter — interviewing NASCAR driver Brandon Brown on air — quipped, “You can hear the chants from the crowd, ‘Let’s go, Brandon!’”

Biden's critics hurl increasingly vulgar taunts

Supporters of Donald Trump claimed that the media was censoring anti-Biden content, the exchange went viral, and a shorthand for vulgarity directed at the president was born.

Yard signs with the phrase were put up. Trump supporters lined streets along Biden’s motorcade holding signs or chanting it. Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) wrapped up a speech on the House floor by saying, “Let’s go, Brandon,” and it has been the focus of several songs, including one from Kid Rock. Even in Rehoboth Beach, Del., not far from Biden’s vacation home, stores sell T-shirts with the phrase.

Biden himself did not seem aware of the coded phrase. When he and first lady Jill Biden were taking calls on Christmas Eve for the NORAD Santa tracker, one man ended his call by saying, “Merry Christmas, and let’s go, Brandon.”

“Let’s go, Brandon, I agree,” the president responded.

Several months later, during the White House correspondents’ dinner, Biden joked about the phrase. “Republicans seem to support one fella, some guy named Brandon,” he said. “He’s having a really good year, and I’m kind of happy for him.”

The phrase “Let’s go, Brandon” has waxed and waned in popularity among right-wing online influencers since it started in October 2021, according to a Washington Post analysis of political text content on both sides of the political spectrum. Lately, though, it has ticked up again after Trump was greeted with chants of the phrase at a golf tournament, and it’s more frequently used than at the beginning of the year — a trend that perhaps inspired the left to pay attention to the meme again.

The Dark Brandon imagery began to gain traction in March and April, but often in ways that were not complimentary of Biden. That changed over the past week or so, particularly after the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Biden supporters en masse began referring to him as Dark Brandon, with imagery of the president as the shadowy dark lord who authorized a drone strike. Some noted that he was sick with the coronavirus while doing so.

“Dark Brandon strikes again,” wrote one user, with an image of Biden wearing aviators and eating ice cream as a bomb explodes in the background.

They are using a similar aesthetic to Dark MAGA, an online movement that uses imagery of Trump and calls on him to seek political vengeance.

Critics on Monday pointed to what they alleged was Nazi imagery in the background of some of the images. Bates had tweeted a meme that placed Biden — with facial hair and an eye patch — on the movie poster for “The Dark Knight.”

“The Malarkey Will End,” it read. “The Dark Brandon Rises.”

Conservative commentators pointed to the background of the poster, saying it included an image of an eagle that was used as a Nazi symbol.

“So Biden’s Deputy White House Press Secretary, @Andrewjbates46, is posting literal Nazi memes on Twitter and our corrupt media is completely silent about it,” wrote Donald Trump Jr. “I’m sure that if this was a Trump WH staffer, the media would treat it the exact same way and totally ignore it.”

But Tobin Stone, who says he created the meme, said the image was in no way meant to evoke any Nazi elements.

“The eagle is not, and was never intended to be the Reichsadler,” he said in a direct message on Twitter, referring to the “Imperial Eagle” used by, among others, Nazi Germany. “It was just intended to be a representation of America’s national bird, the bald eagle, and any reasonable person should be able to interpret it as such. It was just an eagle, and nothing more.”

Stone said he is a graduate of Albright College in Reading, Pa., in political science and public policy and administration, but he makes posters and does graphic design in his free time. He has created several recent Dark Brandon memes.

“I’m a Democrat — and if we are being honest — the past year since the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been pretty disheartening for Democrats,” he wrote. “Up until this past month, where we’ve been seeing win after win, from the gun bill, to declining gas prices, and now the Inflation Reduction Act finally passing. It’s been great to see so many wins, and celebrating them with these memes that portray Biden as this powerful figure that made it all happen is just good fun.”

White House officials said they wanted to tap into the zeitgeist and saw an opportunity to draw attention to the successes they had last week.

Their base is less active on Twitter — and it was a point of pride during Biden’s campaign that they avoided the policies and conversations that may have been trending on social media — so White House aides have been more selective about when to engage.

But they have also sought to turn perceived negatives around. When Trump attempted to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election, they made the case to Democratic primary voters that Trump was most afraid of facing Biden.

It is unclear, however, whether Biden knows about the new direction the memes about him have taken.

Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report.