On Monday morning, as news of the assassination of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri circulated through the press, “Dark Brandon” had his day. Photoshops filled my Twitter feed, transforming Joe Biden from the creaky, besieged, chronically ineffective Delawarean we all know and love to a mastermind of the infernal arts. “Dark Brandon can’t be stopped,” wrote one poster, linking to an image of Joe Biden with his pupil-less eyes glowing yellow like a Dragonball Z villain. Another user gave him a scruffy goatee and an eyepatch, evoking the grizzled Metal Gear Solid hero Solid Snake. (“It’s over, Jack,” reads the inscription.) Biden supporters finally had something to celebrate, a year and a half into one of the most anemic presidential terms in recent political history, and they consecrated that victory by (likely unknowingly) reclaiming a bit of snarky, leftist shitposting for themselves.
The term “Dark Brandon” first surfaced in early 2022 as part of the usual gamut of memes and burns deployed by America’s extremely online socialists—especially those who’ve found themselves feeling euphorically apocalyptic in the face of unchecked climate change, a theocratic Supreme Court, and Joe Manchin’s seemingly insurmountable veto power. For them, “Dark Brandon” was a way to lean into despair. The invaluable resource Know Your Meme delved into the paper trail and uncovered a trove of extremely dark viral tweets from the spring, where Dark Brandon could be found, say, pointing a gun into a woman’s mouth in a Photoshop or overseeing public executions in a Twitter user’s ironic fantasy. The idea here is that Joe Biden was not the fuddy-duddy centrist he appeared to be and instead represented some sort of satanic, Revelations-esque figure, way worse than anyone can imagine.
It’s an aesthetic that mirrors the related Dark MAGA trend, in which alt-right dead-enders and QAnon veterans have adopted an increasingly occultist tone to sheathe their reactionary beliefs. (Here, for instance, is an image of Jordan Peterson with the same facial tattoos as the rapper 6ix9ine.) The difference is that Dark MAGA posters fantasize about the return of an even-more-unhinged, gloves-off Trump, out for revenge. Dark Brandon, on the other hand, was the creation of people without much hope at all.
We can debate over whether it’s foolish to assign any intellectual significance to the tweets made by weirdos on the internet, but I do think that both Dark Brandon and DarkMAGA were interesting artifacts of America’s superheated political environment. The country does feel like it’s perched on the precipice of some sort of prophetic rebirth, and perhaps, as our institutions erode into the sea, Dark Brandon is the harbinger of that final judgment. Meanwhile, because Trump does feel like he might come back, more vengeful than before, DarkMAGA’s attempts to speak that into existence feel like a warning.
But that all changed this week, when Dark Brandon was formally co-opted by the Democratic base. The term no longer has its doomy connotations; instead, it’s being used to give Joe Biden’s enfeebled brand some long-diminished vigor. He’s killing people with drones? Good! “Dark Brandon is rocking it!” writes one poster, accompanying a meme with a caption that reads, “Actions speak louder than golf.” (Trump’s golf habit is perhaps the archetypical topic of all boomer liberal memes, so it is downright uncanny to see it attached to a Joe Biden pseudonym typically used by the terminally online.) “I don’t know who started Dark Brandon, but I like it!” chimes in someone else, with a picture of Joe Biden sewing the American flag back together. Gone are Dark Brandon’s enthralled, Fury Road–esque paeans to death, rebirth, and Valhalla, typical of the memes of early 2022; replacing them are the sort of politics-stan memes you might see on the feed of Occupy Democrats.
Some very online citizens aren’t thrilled that the cringe majority has swooped in and laundered one of the more arcane memes in the culture, but alas, this is a cycle that’s repeated since the dawn of time. (I am old enough to remember how 4chan users would get mad when their lingo was recontextualized on Reddit.) Still, it is funny how right-wing diction continues to be adopted and adapted by the left. “Brandon,” of course, is derived from “Let’s Go Brandon”—a coded phrase that roughly translates to “Fuck Joe Biden.” No Democrat would refer to the leader of their party by that name in 2021. But a few weeks after the inciting incident, the leftist podcasters of Chapo Trap House were using “Brandon” as shorthand for the president and the term Brandonized to refer to the milquetoast political center he occupied. A half-year after that, “Brandon” has, by way of “Dark Brandon,” become something of a rallying cry for libs. It’s similar to the way cuck is now an intrinsic part of the lexicon for many younger people, even if it was popularized by guys like Milo Yiannopolis. Slang truly has no owners. Who knows? Maybe in a few years from now, at the DNC, the floor will be chanting “Let’s Go Brandon,” completely unironically.
With the way things are going for Joe Biden, he might as well lean into the memes as much as possible. Thus far, his presidency has been defined by indecision and soul-crushing congressional gridlock. If he can muster a smidge of momentum from the al-Zawahiri assassination by pulling up the cowl of Dark Brandon, then that is surely better than whatever he’s got going right now. After all, Joe Biden’s approval rating is already cresting back toward 40 percent. Dark Brandon strikes again!