Requiem for a Dark Brandon

Brandon took down the best meme that ever happened to him and in the process stopped a fascist one, too.

Mother Jones Illustration; Yuri Gripas/AP

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Not since Hillary Clinton dabbing on ‘em has a meme been so brutally murdered in public the way “Dark Brandon” was on Monday when several administration officials, and high-profile Democrats, started tweeting photos of president Joe Biden with laser eyes.

If you’re not terminally online, Dark Brandon is a riff on Dark MAGA, a short-lived meme about Trump. Dark MAGA’s few proponents said that Trump would return (probably in 2024) with the gloves off, ready to punish his enemies. To demonstrate this new more authoritarian Trump, a few supporters photoshopped Trump and created art that looked “fashwave.” (It was lame and Dark MAGA, as I wrote before, barely existed.)

From there, Dark Brandon emerged as a joke on top of a joke. It was a play on “Let’s Go Brandon,” the Trump rallying cry spawned from a NASCAR reporter either trying to sidestep or genuinely mishearing the crowd around her yelling “Fuck Joe Biden.” The idea of Biden—a tired, extremely gaffe-prone older man—rounding up his political enemies for public executions is funny. Dark Brandon was able to be more successful than its predecessor because it had the key meme ingredient: irony.

The meme ascended to its heights of popularity just as Biden was finally able to pass his long sought climate and spending bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. Excited about finally having a win, Democrats attempted to message to the kids by posting Dark Brandon memes. It was a reclamation of the joke. Instead of bumbling Biden, he was actually Dark Brandon: the competent leader playing 3D chess to pass the IRA. 

Rob Flaherty, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Digital Strategy, appeared to be the first administration official to acknowledge his boss’s dark avatar. White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) followed him, posting their own later in the day. 

For the first time in a while, sitting on a throne of assault rifles or digitized into pink vapowave worlds, Biden actually looked vaguely cool online. The meme went from being a joke about him being so hapless that he could never possibly look in control to him actually looking in control as his signature legislation passed. Right-wingers who detested it appeared goofy trying to shoot it down because the memes were already premised on Biden being bumbling.

“He can barely put a sentence together and has been hacking up from Covid for like 3 weeks now,” right-wing writer Stephen L. Miller tweeted in response to a story about Dark Brandon. Yes, exactly. That’s the point of Dark Brandon. The meme never lost its ironic tinge. But as it grew, the gap between where the irony started and stopped became harder to spot.

Obviously, this will not last. In fact, Dark Brandon is done. The staff of a decidedly not subversive 79-year-old president hopping on a meme—a form that partially relies on insularity and adherence to a loose but specific set of rules—is a death sentence.

Even the attempt of a one day Dark Brandon project was rough. The posts looked like someone who heard about memes existing but had never seen one. Flaherty chose a darkened picture of Biden with slightly off-center lasered eyes. Bates got the laser eyes right but added in “Your malarky been going on long enough, kiddo” in a small white font that does not work at all. Murphy’s cropped picture of a manga version of Biden of murky provenance was the only passable post of the bunch. 

Most memes live entire lives in obscurity. They’re born in deeply online corners of the internet, off major social media sites, that few people ever make it to. If they climb to a bigger site, most users still won’t see them. Usually, if a meme makes it big, it ran a natural course of following up from the irony-poisoned depths of edgelord internet and/or the Black internet to teenagers and then to the wider world that ends it. Some deaths are more gruesome like “Lit,” “On Fleek,” and “Karen.” Some age out gracefully, like the “Is This a Pigeon” meme. Some like “Fuck Around and Find Out” continue on for a bit as meme zombies that have thoroughly died unbeknownst to least online among us.

Sometimes when this phase-out of a meme happens, a world around it dies too. Biden’s staff didn’t just kill Dark Brandon. They did something more important than that: They probably ended fashwave, a meme aesthetic popular in the bowels of the pro-fascist internet that blended 80s style vaporwave with a version of the future run through a VHS tape.

It was often used to stylize fascist outfitted in military gear and original World War II Nazis, and naturally gave them laser eyes. The aesthetic had already seen its best days, and wasn’t as pervasive on the far-right internet as it used to be, but by associating himself with a meme style that had partially descended from it, Biden and his earnest staff and followers have probably made it impossible for Neo-Nazi edgelords to make fashwave posts for at least a bit.

By enlisting fascist meme offshoots, the administration unlocked a code: Earnest Democrats like Biden might have a hard time being cool on the internet, but they can kill “hip” stuff that bad people like.

That is extremely powerful. They made fashwave a bit cringe.

I tweeted about how the administration’s acknowledgment of Dark Brandon probably spelled the end of the edginess of dark, fashwave online. Perfectly on cue, liberals starting putting earnestly putting abysmally bad Joe Biden memes in my mentions. The pictures were not at all dark. One was of Biden photoshopped onto a Top Gun poster—a two-decade-old meme format that I had first seen as a child in 2002 when my dad printed a “Star Wars Episode II: Clone Wars” poster that someone had photoshopped the Bush administration onto. Another person posted a picture of Biden’s head on Captain America’s body. 

They were elated for there to be a meme of Biden that portrayed him as something other than a tired, blundering goofball, which are really the only memes of him that make further it than “Blue No Matter Who” Twitter.  As the Daily Beast puts it: “In Dark Brandon lore, Biden only seemed to be incompetent; underneath the images of stumbling senility was a cold, calculating, sinister Machiavelli.” 

The White House probably doesn’t want to acknowledge that Biden can come off to some as stumblingly incompetent and as evidenced by the, not at all dark, Dark Brandon “memes” people threw in my mentions, his devotees certainly don’t want to either. If you lose that, you lose the special meme magic.

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

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