The Tale of Brandon is our founding epic, our Odyssey or Song of Roland, with this difference: it’s still being written. Perhaps it's unnecessary, here, to tell it again from the beginning, for it can be Googled. But in recent weeks, the plot has thickened or maybe reversed as the episode known as the Dark Brandon Saga has unfolded.
When "Let's Go Brandon" (LGB!) arrived last fall, pro-Biden forces reacted with grim outrage. Noting that Republican lawmakers had worn LGB! merchandise on the floor of the Senate, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank wrote that “half of America’s leaders are trying to govern, and the other half are hurling vulgarities." Well, they were hurling phrases that refer to vulgarities, anyway.
With the help of people like Milbank, LGB! became a fad in rural America last winter. It was everywhere out here in central PA: on lawn signs, flagpoles, trucks, draped across roadhouses. Early in the spring as the crocuses blossomed, I saw it on a church sign, and believed.
Thus pro-Biden forces lost the LGB! war. Probably the FCC! concluded the phrase couldn't reasonably be banned from prime-time television, for example, since Brandon isn’t not vulgar at all. No human being is, any more than any human’s illegal. Brandon won the war and made it back home to Jill in Ithaca, or wherever, and that seemed to be that. The merch would slowly disintegrate into the environment and Brandon dissolve into legend, his Odyssey at an end.
In the last few weeks, however, and in epic style (cf. General Hospital or Marvel's "Dark Phoenix Saga"), Brandon has returned as his own evil twin Dark Brandon, a character with glowing eyes and, occasionally, an ice cream cone. Dark Brandon was probably initially deployed from the right in an attempt to breathe new force into the LGB! movement, a fact or possible fact that still fills Vox with anxiety.
“It’s honestly pretty shocking to see multiple Biden administration officials tweet out these memes—specifically the red laser eye ones—considering the meme’s roots in chan culture,” Bloomberg's William Turton tweeted. “The connotation is not very appealing," he added, which I think was supposed to express an emphatic condemnation. He could’ve gone all the way to “inappropriate, specifically the red laser eye ones” but no doubt needed to keep some arrows in his quiver.
Vox's Aja Romano writes, "At this point in the meme’s evolution, then, trying to parse the difference between a 'Dark Brandon' post used unironically to further the aims of liberals and one used ironically to further the aims of neo-Nazis arguably becomes counterproductive. What we’re left with is a meme that’s carried all of this baggage into the mainstream, evolving too fast to be unpacked. Dark Brandon further reflects the ugly and rarely acknowledged truth that at this point in the life of the internet, countless parts of extremist far-right language and ideas have memed their way into the mainstream."
This is for your own good, lefties: you've got to forget this useless "parsing" slop if you're ever going to do anything worthwhile on the internet, or, on signs by the side of the road. This kind of anxiety about the supposed real or original meanings of words and images never made any empirical or theoretical sense or helped you accomplish anything. It just fouled you in a thicket of disabling superstitious hooey. Amazingly, however, someone on the left appears to have realized that, and redeployed Dark Brandon quickly, without trying to control all meanings everywhere and without the apparent extreme logophobia and logophilia that characterizes the progressive politics of this era.
Progressives' reputation for grim humorlessness is well-earned, and it has had a lot to do with how Trumpies have kicked their ass, where they have. On the internet, but also everywhere else, this behavior is self-destructive, and it’s occurred to pro-Biden forces that Dark Brandon is a powerful, though jocular, dude, and that he might be useful in a counter-attack. The extreme incongruity of Biden-as-Voldemort makes the thing funny, and funny makes it stick.
I didn’t think that the Democrats had it in them. For 30 years or more they've accepted the sort of research on strategic messaging that emerges out of academic communications programs. This teaches that you must construct a compelling "narrative." You have to control the way an "issue" is publicly "framed," by the careful use of controlled phraseology. You should poll and focus-group these phrases ("risky scheme," maybe, or "common-sense gun laws") and then repeat them incessantly. Progressives concluded above all that they need to control the way they talk, so they can control the way we think. Nothing improvised, loose, human: stay on message, prompter, talking points.
But they keep getting waylaid unexpectedly; they're still trying to absorb Trump's repurposing of "fake news," for example, which he accomplished with the casual flick of a sentence. It's taken Democrats years to face up to that one. I know you're dedicated. I know you're sincere. It's important that you win, so you don't want to make mistakes. Don't let all that make you slow, make you stupid, make you mechanical.
Some people on pro-Brandon Twitter and even in the White House have learned this lesson, which was embodied in Homer's character Odysseus: to have any hope in this election cycle, you'd better be ready to volley back immediately, re-appropriate and re-deploy, to play with language and image. Otherwise you'll get played by them.
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell