This time last year, members of the GOP and some far-right groups chanted “Let’s Go Brandon” at rallies, parades and sporting events, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Joe Biden as a way to insult the sitting president.
This year came memes of “Dark MAGA,” a phrase that calls for former President Donald Trump to run an even more bold campaign for president in 2024.
Soon after came “Dark Brandon,” which initially seemed to be a way for the GOP to poke fun at Biden. “Dark Brandon” is stylized with heavy contrast or decreased background light, and typically features the president shooting lasers from his eyes or adorned with military gear.
Now, images of so-called “Dark Brandon” are being shared online – not by Biden's opponents, but by fellow Democrats and members of his administration as a way to herald the president’s recent policy successes.
Here’s a view at the lifecycle of the meme on the internet.
It started largely by mistake.
In October 2021, NBC sports reporter Kelli Stavast was interviewing racing driver Brandon Brown, the winner of the Sparks 300 race at the Talladega Superspeedway, on his win. In the background of the interview were chants of “F*** Joe Biden” from the crowd – which Stavast mistook for chants of “Let’s Go Brandon,” and reported it live on-air as such.
The phrase was quickly commandeered by Republicans as a dig at the sitting president, and it didn’t take long for it to sneak into popular culture.
Las Vegas rapper Loza Alexander penned a song called “Let’s go Brandon” in late October of last year, which went viral on TikTok before taking the No. 1 slot on the iTunes hip hop chart. Singer Kid Rock, a longtime supporter of former President Donald Trump, released a song in January entitled “We the People,” which contains chants of “Let’s go Brandon” in the chorus.
The phrase has been used by sitting politicians as well, mostly to express their displeasure with Biden’s policies.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last October tweeted the phrase alongside a critique of high inflation, saying it was caused by Biden’s “immoral tax on low and middle income families.”
Others followed suit. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., delivered an empassioned address on the House floor last October that he closed with an enthusiastic fist pump and a shout of “Let’s go, Brandon!” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was pictured alongside a “Let’s Go Brandon” sign at the World Series, and again evoked the quote during a CPAC speech this February.
As the phrase’s notoriety grew, it wasn’t long before it reached the president directly. In Dec. 2021, when Biden and the first lady were participating in the annual NORAD Santa tracker tradition, a man signed off the phone call saying: "Yeah, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas as well. Merry Christmas and let's go Brandon.”
The president took it in stride, smiling and responding: "Let's go Brandon. I agree."
He again acknowledged the phrase during the White House Correspondents' Dinner in April, joking: “Republicans seem to support one fella, some guy named Brandon. He's having a good year, I'm kind of happy for him.”
And for a long time, that seemed to be the White House's strategy: brush off comments and insults from the GOP without engaging directly in the mud-slinging.
In the leadup to the midterms, that seems to be changing – particularly in the administration’s online presence.
The use of “dark” in referring to political candidates actually first came from supporters of Donald Trump in March of this year. It hit the mainstream after North Carolina freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn lost his primary election and called "for Dark MAGA to truly take command" in an Instagram post.
Supporters coined the phrase and Twitter hashtag #DarkMAGA – a reference to the Make America Great Again slogan – to represent a Trump running for president in 2024 who abandoned all political norms. It was meant as a positive phrase in reference to the former president, though many experts point to Nazi and white supremacist dog whistles present in the memes.
The meme then turned to Biden, though posters originally used it as a way to poke fun at many common right-wing talking points: attacks on Biden's gaffes and accusations about his mental faculties, that he leads with too soft a touch and or that he is not as forceful as Donald Trump.
But slowly, some "pro-Dark Biden" memes began to emerge – particularly in the wake of the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who took over as leader of al-Qaida after Osama Bin Laden's death, who was killed in a targeted strike ordered by the Biden administration over the summer.
Many of those tweets favorably compared Biden, who was sick with COVID at the time of the strike, to Trump, who also contracted COVID during his presidency and was treated at a hospital for the illness.
More recently, the trend has spread to other Democrats, with images of Mary Peltola – who on Wednesday defeated Sarah Palin in a special election for Alaska's House seat – given the "dark" makeover of blue laser eyes in seeming approval of her victory.
And Right-wing Twitter has taken notice: As recently as Aug. 1, one user complained the Dark Brandon meme had “been coopted (sic) by the libs."
And so the shift, spurred on by tweets from members of the Biden administration, began in earnest.
Joe Biden is not known for being the most chronically online president. His social media presence is typically straightforward, pre-written statements about policy achievements or goals, frequently echoing the language of his public speeches.
That strategy seemed to shift in early August – at the very least for members of his staff, who have stepped up their own rhetoric online.
On August 7, after the Senate passed Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act by a narrow 51-50 vote (with Vice President Kamala Harris as tiebreaker), a number of officials shared “Dark Brandon” memes.
Among the first was White House digital director Rob Flaherty, who shared an image of Biden with red lasers shooting out of his eyes as a way to express support for the president’s legislative success.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Andrew Bates posted a similar image later the same day alongside the caption “Dark Brandon is crushing it.”
And both the official Twitter account of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a very active social media user in the Democratic caucus, shared an image of Biden with glowing yellow eyes.
The meme has quickly grown in liberal circles on the internet outside of the White House. A search of the #DarkBrandon hashtag on Twitter reveals hundreds of images, most of which are captioned with pro-Biden language.
“#DarkBrandon has truly attained unprecedented power levels,” one user tweeted alongside a photo of a blue-laser-eyed Biden atop Mount Rushmore.
“Thank you #DarkBrandon and the #DarkDemocrats for passing legislation that benefits the earth, it's earthings and the American people,” read another, in response to Biden’s recent tweet about the climate provisions included in the Inflation Reduction Act.
The shift came as Biden began to tick through policy goals faster than the first year-plus of his presidency, a change noted by many on social media.
Just in August, Biden has signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law; announced a targeted student debt relief plan that forgives up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients; signed the CHIPS and Science Act into law; signed the PACT Act for veterans into law and killed Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The White House has launched a seemingly more aggressive social media strategy in recent weeks – outside of the Dark Brandon memes – to highlight those policy achievements and push back against GOP criticisms.
One much-heralded thread on social media took aim at Republican members of Congress who opposed Biden’s student debt relief plan by showcasing how much in Payment Protection Program loans each lawmaker had forgiven.
The more direct strategy was credited to new White House hire Megan Coyne as deputy director of platforms in its Office of Digital Strategy, who previously gained notoriety for running the New Jersey state Twitter account in a classic Garden State style.
Biden himself has also unleashed some more fiery rhetoric at public events in recent weeks.
Biden delivered pointed remarks at a rally and fundraiser in Maryland last week, warning that “MAGA Republicans” are a threat to democracy and telling attendees that the “right to choose is on the ballot this year.
At a separate event in Pennsylvania, Biden also compared the ideology of the “extreme MAGA” Republicans – those who continue to support Trump despite his repeated lies about the 2020 election – to “semi-fascism,” a comment that drew ire from members of the GOP and some Democrats alike.
Still, some members of the administration noted Biden is not one to shy away from criticizing his opponents.
“We’ve never hesitated to call out hypocrisy, and we’re not going to stop now,” White House spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna recently told the Washington Post.
It’s true that Biden has been long known for his one-liners, peppered with his oft-used term “malarkey.” But the recent online shift towards similar language might reflect an optimistic outlook as the midterms near, in particular for Democrats’ chances with millennial and Gen Z voters, who tend to prefer liberal candidates.
And young voter turnout is expected to meet or surpass the record-breaking turnout from 2018, according to recent data from The Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
“In the past two election cycles, America’s youngest voters have proven themselves to be a formidable voting bloc with a deep commitment to civic engagement,” IOP director Mark Gearan wrote of the data. "Elected officials from both parties would benefit from listening to young Americans and as we head into the midterm elections.”