Inside ‘Dark Brandon’: What is the growing meme phenomenon?

The fascist ‘Dark MAGA’ aesthetic flourished in fringe online spaces with explicit calls for violence. Liberals embraced Joe Biden’s ironic transformation as a laser-eyed antidote, Alex Woodward reports

Thursday 11 August 2022 13:20 EDT

During a post-race interview with Nascar driver Brandon Brown in October 2021, newscaster Kellie Stavast believed the crowd behind him – clearly chanting “f*** Joe Biden” – was instead cheering him on with “let’s go, Brandon”.

“Let’s go, Brandon” or even just “Brandon” quickly became shorthand on the American right to broadcast a middle finger to the president, a rallying cry plastered on T-shirts, bumper stickers, yard signs and across the internet.

It was later adopted broadly to criticise the administration and express disappointment with a president critics perceived as woefully ill-equipped for reality.

Enter the “Dark Brandon” era.

After a string of “good news” for the Biden agenda, White House officials elevated a meme from terminally online obscurity, reclaiming ironic images of a tired and gaffe-prone president cast as a demi-god-like figure.

The meme was supercharged after the FBI’s raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort home in Palm Beach, Florida, followed immediately by the former president and his Republican allies characterising the search as a political hit job and an attack on the American people. The events became a defining moment for Dark Brandon, ascending to power with glowing red eyes on a throne of swords.

How Joe Biden became a meme

Joe Biden has existed as a meme in some form for nearly two decades.

There was Biden as Diamond Joe, an occasional ponytail-wearing Dokken fan behind the wheel of a 1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am as portrayed in various headlines from the satirical news website The Onion during his vice presidency, or “president of vice”: “Biden Quietly Singing Pearl Jam’s ‘Even Flow’ During Security Briefing”, “Biden Arrives Early to Set up State of the Union Fog Machine”, “Biden Lines up Sweet Summer Gig Installing Above-Ground Swimming Pools”.

That persona, an absurd pairing to Barack Obama’s straight man, was retired in 2019 during his presidential campaign. But “Onion Biden” came to dominate the pop-cultural image of then-Vice President Biden – a caricature of one of the world’s most powerful officials was somehow more convincing than reality.

Dark Brandon memes intially leaned into leftists’ despair, facing threats of far-right violence, voter suppression, a growing climate crisis, and the US Supreme Court’s string of devastating rulings for abortion rights and the environment, gun violence and the firewall between church and state.

But the meme was reborn among his supporters following a string of recent victories for the administration among other Democratic “wins” – from Senate passage of a major climate, tax reform and healthcare bill to news of cooling inflation and declining gas prices, as well as the US killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The image of Dark Brandon not only reclaims the “Brandon” label but subverts the explicitly fascist “Dark MAGA” aesthetic, giving liberals who otherwise have been on the receiving end of a years-long meme war the ammunition to participate.

With Dark Brandon, the 78-year-old Biden undergoes an ironic transformation as a bearded, eyepatch-wearing Metal Gear Solid figure or laser-eyed anime character.

In 2020, a Chinese artist named Yang Quan depicted President Biden on a Game of Thrones-inspired throne and in riffs on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – replacing “Knight” with “Brandon” in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Those images were revived in recent weeks.

Earlier this year, ironic viral images depicted the president in his “Brandonized” era. The caption “Biden public executions” accompanies an image of the arrest of more than two dozen white nationalists near a Pride event in Idaho. Another post frames Mr Biden’s sunglasses-wearing head against a list that begins with “SHINZO ABE: NEUTRALIZED” and “ANTIFA: FULLY ARMED”.

The Dark Brandon meme crystalised as an ironic reversal of the Dark MAGA trend by August, with Biden executing his “plan” with ruthless precision – from authorising a strike against al-Zawahiri while sick with Covid-19 to saving the beloved Choco Taco dessert.

Reddit’s r/darkbrandon channel exploded with memes. Biden as Thanos snapping his fingers, dissolving soyjacks in Make America Great Again hats. Biden shooting at Covid-19. Biden going Super Saiyan.

In recent days, members of the Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers began sharing Dark Brandon memes, demonstrating how the meme has become more mainstream.

But experts warn there are risks to embracing this type of political iconography.

“You don’t want to take a a trend that is precipitated by fascists and Nazis and then sort that into your arsenal. That’s just not great,” says extremist researcher Daniel Grober, who co-authored with Hampton Stall a definitive report on the Dark MAGA trend in far-right online networks. “What it does is it normalises the aesthetic, and it gives kind of a platform for it to be solidified into the general media.”

Meanwhile, far-right figures are accusing liberal Democrats of using a meme generated from within their own circles as a means of accelerating the US towards fascism. Republicans and Fox News figures have alleged “Dark Brandon” is a coordinated campaign with the Chinese government or have accused the White House of using “Nazi Eagle imagery”. Extremist researchers say those claims don’t hold up.

Following the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search, far-right extremists have doubled down on explicit calls for political violence. Civil war accelerationists are capitalising on the moment and feeding off of Republican officials’ demands for retribution.

After they are normalised and flattened by influencers and elected officials and memed into oblivion elsewhere, cloaked in layers upon layers of ironic detachment until, maybe, they are effectively meaningless, Dark Brandon memes may have rendered some of that imagery toothless. But the trajectory of the mimetic universe is one that cannot necessarily be controlled or predicted or fit into any narrow ideological box.

From Dark MAGA to Dark Brandon

Right-wing figures have prided themselves on being good at memes as a political tool, and their platforms are full of them, from earnest and hastily photoshopped images of Trump as the “Great MAGA King” to laser-eyed, QAnon-inspired and “fashwave” images.

The Dark MAGA aesthetic capitalised on resentment, radicalising an already-violent and reactionary movement with images of the former president as a god-like figure on a warpath against his political enemies.

“With these things, when they’re introduced into the ecosystem, they then begin to kind of take on a life of their own,” Mr Grober tells The Independent.

Orange to Red: An Assessment of the Dark MAGA Trend in Far-Right Online Spaces, published by the Global Network on Extremism & Technology, chronicles the evolution of Dark MAGA from within the alt-right, a throughline from GamerGate to the vengeful, emboldened and extremely online movement laundering its fascism through meme warfare.

The Dark MAGA meme embodies the idea of a “Revenge President birthed from the far right’s urge to reclaim what they crave and have lost: power,” according to the authors.

“Proponents seek to punish their political enemies without attending to political correctness. Dark MAGA is an appeal to accept the true desires of the most dissident Trump supporters and mainstream their feelings through the medium of memes, which played a crucial role in the 2016 election,” they write.

The aesthetic strips the facade of well-behaved political optics and centres the Trump movement as one driven by violence and the destruction of its rivals.

Beginning in January 2022, images began to circulate sharing what became a familiar template – red-and-black images of the former president, often depicted with red-laser eyes, and often accompanied with Nazi symoblogy and American iconography or references to video games that have attracted white supermacist fans.

The aesthetic gained little traction among more-mainstream circles but was adopted and remixed across some larger platforms among far-right influencers.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day in April, far-right congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona – who last year shared an edited clip from the anime Attack on Titan to depict himself killing Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – posted a red-and-black image of himself to Twitter.

“Remember when our government sent planes to Afghanistan and brought over 100,000 Afghans in less than a week?” he said in an accompanying post. “We have in the range of up to 40 million illegal aliens in our country. They can be deported by planes, trains and buses. We could easily deport 6 million each year.”

Users shared and commented on the post with the hashtag #darkmaga and celebrated his use of the number 6 million, approximately the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust. His campaign denied the reference, and the posts were deleted from Mr Gosar’s account, and a new version of the tweet was shared without the 6 million figure or accompanying red-and-black image.

In May, far-right Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene also shared an image of a red-and-black image of herself with laser eyes on her official congressional Twitter account with the hashtag “ultramaga”.

Meanwhile, the gap between an online information ecosystem born from conspiracy theory-driven, hardened extremist spaces and the right-wing mainstream continues to diminish.

Despite layers of “irony” or “trolling”, “that rhetoric itself is platformed,” Mr Grober tells The Independent. “And what is distributed across the internet, among the various different channels into people’s brains, manifests itself in very different ways, where you’re producing content that is driving people in a certain direction. You are responsible for those actions. And you can’t hide behind that.”

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