‘Dark Brandon’: How the Left Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Biden’s Alter Ego

·9 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

When Senate Democrats finally passed their big-ticket climate change, health care, and tax policy bill on Sunday, they fired off the usual press releases hailing it as an historic achievement.

But Democratic lawmakers and staffers also did something else: They tweeted out images of President Joe Biden as a shadowy, suit-clad cartoon character with yellow glowing eyes, Biden with lasers shooting from his eyes, and the president sitting on a throne of AK-47s, surrounded by towers of fire.

“Dark Brandon,” tweeted White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates, “is crushing it.”

Until this week, Brandon had literally been a four-letter word to Democrats. In the last year, a NASCAR interview that went viral turned the phrase “Let’s go, Brandon!” into the MAGA movement’s beloved shorthand for “Fuck Joe Biden.” The rallying cry is now ubiquitous on shirts, bumper stickers, flags, and apparel worn by members of Congress.

Amid those constant taunts and a pile-up of crises for the Biden administration, online left-wingers began to imagine a fictional, hyper-competent, even murderous Joe Biden: “Dark Brandon.”

Dark Brandon emerged this spring as a cry of frustration from irony-addled progressives, as a mocking contrast to the Biden administration’s doldrums. While the actual Biden struggled to keep gas prices down and respond to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Dark Brandon was Biden’s menacing, fantasy alter ego.

In Dark Brandon lore, Biden only seemed to be incompetent; underneath the images of stumbling senility was a cold, calculating, sinister Machiavelli—a Keyser Söze faking a limp.

“It’s revealed that he’s pulling the strings behind the scenes and that everything’s going to plan,” said Don Caldwell, the general manager of meme-tracking website Know Your Meme. “Sometimes it’s that he’s appearing to be senile and he’s actually completely with it.”

Biden began to rack up some actual wins in the late summer, with the U.S. assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a drop in gas prices, the release of encouraging employment numbers, the passage of gun control reforms, and a major investment in U.S. manufacturing.

That’s when the president and his alter ego appeared to merge. “It’s pretty insane that Dark Brandon sniped Ayman al-Zawahiri off a balcony with a drone while Trump was golfing with the Saudis,” quipped one Twitter user.

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But it took the passage of Democrats’ $700 billion legislation in the Senate, packed with a number of long-awaited wins for the party, to catapult Dark Brandon from the fever swamps of the Very Online into the Democratic mainstream.

Now, the ranks of those who have shared Dark Brandon memes include the influential Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the White House’s director of digital strategy, press officials from the Commerce and State Departments, and a number of Democratic communications staffers on Capitol Hill.

A half-joking attempt from Democrats to match MAGA trolling with trolling of their own has now, unexpectedly, become a somewhat legitimate messaging strategy.

The Biden press shop had noticed the rise in Dark Brandon content online and decided to lean into the meme as the president capped off a successful stretch, a White House official told The Daily Beast. Dealing with Trump and Republicans during and after the 2020 campaign convinced the Biden team that mockingly embracing the other side’s online attacks could have a strategic advantage.

A quick survey by The Daily Beast found that Democratic press people were greeting Dark Brandon warmly, with some relief that they were finally able to have a little fun and respond to the GOP’s merciless chants of “Let’s go, Brandon.”

A House Democratic communications director, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, compared Dark Brandon to The Onion’s widely beloved series on Biden portraying the (at the time) vice president as a crazy uncle who rode motorcycles and washed his sports car shirtless on the lawn of the White House.

“The humor is that Biden is nothing like this image of him,” said the staffer. “In the case of Dark Brandon, it is a mockery of the Republican branding, which is something I appreciate.”

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To many Democrats, the sight of Biden’s team leaning into memes as part of messaging is doubly rich. The unofficial motto of Biden’s 2020 primary campaign—that “Twitter is not real life”—has carried over into his White House. The Biden press shop operates knowing their core supporters largely aren’t on Twitter, the White House official said.

One Democratic operative, who worked for a rival primary candidate in 2020, noted to The Daily Beast that the Biden campaign never had the kind of breakout online moment that nearly every other leading contender did. “It was all about beating Trump, not loving Biden,” the operative said.

Now, Dark Brandon is the first time since the Obama years that people are having fun with Biden’s public image, the operative argued. “His team is really embracing that experience,” this operative said. “Good for morale, both internally and externally.”

There are also echoes of GOP memeing in Dark Brandon. For years, Republicans played up Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as “Cocaine Mitch,” riffing off a bizarre attack from the coal baron Don Blankenship. The famously laconic and dour Senate GOP leader is, of course, no Pablo Escobar. But his staff and other Republicans played up the absurdity to invite comparisons between McConnell’s legislative hardball and the ruthlessness of a drug lord.

There are also strains of the GOP mantra “own the libs” in Dark Brandon, where all manner of partisan sins are forgivable as long as you’re beating the other side.

Others noted that, on a broader scale with voters, Dark Brandon could give liberals a communal rallying cry they’ve lacked during the Biden presidency.

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In the same way “Let’s Go Brandon” is a unifying quip for Republicans, or “Not My President” was a popular anti-Trump phrase, or “Thanks, Obama” gave voters of the same political spades some common language—both for Republicans unironically and for Democrats ironically—the idea of “Dark Brandon” could be a source of humorous camaraderie among Democratic voters who’ve been beaten down by policy losses for months.

“The liberals are in on the joke too, right? They know that,” said Melani McAlister, an American Studies professor at George Washington University. “Joe Biden is a very mild-mannered person, but they are arguing that he can be effective and tough even while being a very different kind of personality than Trump.”

Jessica Myrick, a professor at Penn State University that has studied the impact of memes, also compared the “Dark Brandon” meme to a social form of schadenfreude: the idea of feeling pleasure from watching others’ pain.

“Seeing Biden win means that conservatives and the right-wing people who so despise him are clearly suffering… It’s almost like reveling in the pain that MAGA supporters must be feeling at Biden being so successful in the last couple of weeks,” Myrick told The Daily Beast.

Republicans, meanwhile, have largely dismissed Dark Brandon as an attempt to distract from Biden’s larger problems.

“You can try to Dark Brandon meme your way out of sub-40 approval ratings all you want, but throwing hundreds of billions at green boondoggles in the middle of an inflationary spiral isn’t going to turn things around,” tweeted conservative influencer Ben Shapiro.

Still, Shapiro conceded that the image of Biden “actually being a laser-eyed death lord is pretty hilarious.”

Dark Brandon is sort of a portmanteau of two Republican memes: “Let’s Go Brandon,” and “Dark MAGA.”

In October 2021, Trump fans at a NASCAR race started chanting “Fuck Joe Biden” in the background of an NBC Sports Network broadcast. An NBC reporter, deliberately or not, misinterpreted the chant to mean “Let’s Go Brandon,” a reference to NASCAR driver Brandon Brown. Since then, the right has adopted “Let’s Go Brandon” as a more coded way to insult Biden, and even some liberals have picked up “Brandon” as a presidential nickname.

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As “Brandon” was gaining currency online, other Trump supporters started imagining “Dark MAGA," the idea that a vengeful Trump with laser eyes would retake power and punish his foes. Notably, after his defeat in a primary election, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) vowed a “dark MAGA” takeover of the GOP.

Dark Brandon imagery mines a number of rich sources for memes, including anime and video games. Dark Brandon is sometimes pictured glowering with an eye patch, in what appears to be a reference to the Metal Gear Solid mercenary character Punished Snake.

The message? Joe Biden tried playing nice. Now Dark Brandon is playing for keeps.

In its original form, Dark Brandon had multiple targets, including Biden’s perceived fecklessness, earnest conservative memes that compared Trump to Rocky Balboa or Rambo, as well as some Trump supporters’ QAnon-style predictions that Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary, would soon wreak havoc on his enemies. Other Dark Brandon memes blend Bidenisms like addressing someone as “Jack,” or his hatred for “malarkey.”

Some Twitter users have expressed concern that Dark Brandon’s glowing eyes play on right-wing extremists who are also fond of adding “laser” eyes to their heroes. But the trope dates back long before that, with appearances in anime, cryptocurrency communities, and a 2014 meme about an ebola-infected doctor saying he was “growing stronger.”

“I would definitely not characterize the glowing-eyes thing as a prominent right-wing thing,” Caldwell said. “It’s been a staple of memes for so many years now.”

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One Dark Brandon meme—that of a maniacal Biden on a throne of AK-47s—has apparent origins in China, from an account that posts propaganda favoring the ruling Communist Party. Initially made after the 2020 election, according to Politico, the image was seen at the time as “this very exaggerated image of an ‘evil Biden’” that mirrored GOP attempts to demonize him.

Other Dark Brandon memes—though none of the ones posted by top Democrats—play on the glitchy, purple aesthetics of the neo-Nazi “fashwave” movement and a related online group, the white supremacist terrorist community known as “Terrorgram.” But for some Dark Brandon fans, reappropriating that imagery in Biden’s favor is the point.

“It’s all part of the plan, Jack!” wrote one Reddit user on the site’s “Dark Brandon” forum.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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