Shibboleths exist for good reason: people love belonging to secret clubs, they like feeling like insiders while making others feel like outsiders. I’ve been debating whether “Let’s Go Brandon”—the Republican phrase standing in for “Fuck Joe Biden”—counts as one. I suspect it doesn’t. It’s too widespread, for one thing: There are piles of news articles explaining this silly substitution of one phrase for another. It’s less a codeword between insiders than a veiled taunt. Sure, it’s sort of pretending to be private and polite, and this gives it a slightly weird and contorted energy; you don’t often see trolling combined with H-E-double-hockey-sticks primness. But one sees why it appeals. Republicans got excited that a journalist misheard chants of “Fuck you, Biden” as “Let’s go, Brandon,” so the phrase usefully captures how much they hate the president of the United States and how much they hate the lamestream media, or the fake news, or whatever the current phrase du jour is for the forces they feel are censoring the magnitude of their hatred of President Biden. Republicans seem to take a lot of pleasure in schoolyard wordplay—calling the Democratic Party the Democrat Party, for example (or, a favorite, calling them DemocRATS). Judging by the speed with which this latest bon mot has traveled, “Let’s Go Brandon” is a hit.
And speaking as a non-Republican: this is fine! This slouching behemoth of a nation holds sacred the right to berate those in charge. Who cares if people at a game want to chant “Fuck Joe Biden”? Knock yourselves out, I say. And if you want to swap in “Let’s Go Brandon” to convey the same sentiment, go for it. You may sound childish to me, declining to actually swear and all, but you seem to be having a whale of a time, and we could all use a little fun these days.
Where it gets weirder is when figures in authority start flaunting these phrases. That lands differently because at that point they’re emphatically not shibboleths: they’re functioning as codewords in reverse, knowing provocations aimed at political enemies. And given January 6, and the spread of QAnon, and forums where Republicans are asking when they can finally start killing people, Republican trolling can no longer be dismissed as simply gestural—or recreational. (White supremacists have started actually using that “OK” hand signal that started off as a hoax.) I don’t know whether that Southwest pilot said “Let’s go Brandon” or (as has also been floated) he was talking about the Braves. But I get why that lands differently: your life is in a pilot’s hands for the duration of a flight! It’s not the same as some guy next to you at a game screaming about how much he hates the president.
The former scenario gets people worked up because the action is inappropriate—by which I don’t mean impolite but rather indicative that there exists both a desire and a will to violate professional boundaries, and to make that known to people in your professional care. This is becoming more common in scenarios that are nontrivial and sometimes clearly dangerous: we know now that pro-Trump police officers in Texas deliberately withheld help when a Biden bus was surrounded by hostile Trump supporters in trucks. The 911 call recordings reveal that those police officers “joked about the victims and their distress.” We know now that members of Congress were plotting with the January 6 insurrectionists against their own colleagues, and that even some members of the Capitol Police subordinated their professional roles to their self-conception as insurrectionists.
The conventional wisdom in this country was, for a long time, that words are just that—“sticks and stones” etc. etc. Indeed, when Trump was elected, even many of those who voted for him maintained that he was to be taken seriously but not literally: concern that he might actually build walls and make lists of Muslims was all lib hysteria, a misreading of his humor, an inability to take a joke. As the years have progressed, Republican trolling has graduated into violent action, some of it aimed at directly undermining the democratic system. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. Libs are not being unreasonable when they affirm that the schoolyard taunts of Republicanism have matured into threats and actions, some of which have the very real ability to harm us.
These things are all true. And yet, I’m finding it impossible to care about “Let’s go, Brandon” even now, when #TheBrandonAdministration is trending (wittily) on Twitter after a Republican gubernatorial victory in Virginia. There are a lot of things to worry about at present and that’s all the more reason to choose one’s energy sinks with care. It’s such a rare and delightful pleasure not to have to care about this particular kerfuffle that I suggest you follow my example. Look, it’d be nice if we were cohesive enough as a society that we could trust each other’s intentions—receive insults as exactly that and no more, for instance, instead of reading them as threats or declarations of war. We’re not, but “Let’s Go Brandon” is as close as we’re going to get to that. It’s not threatening Muslims or immigrants or calling Mexicans rapists or endangering Asian Americans! It’s just a simple, straightforward insult, and it’s punching straight up.
A lot of bad things have happened. A lot of bad things will probably still happen. But sometimes you can take a second to marvel at the stupidity of the other side’s fun. Let ‘em rejoice in it, and rejoice yourself at the relief of not having to care—even if it’s just about this one dumb thing.