social media

Why Is Everyone Talking About ‘Dark Brandon?'

And is the meme dead?

The memes give Joe Biden glowing eyes, a replica of the Iron Throne made of guns, an eyepatch on a movie poster inspired by “The Dark Knight Rises.” Where Christian Bale’s Batman was surrounded in an outline of a bat, there is Biden, eyepatched, surrounded by an eagle.

Biden is having a pretty good August: the Inflation Reduction Act is passing, the U.S. recently killed an al Qaeda leader, and Biden signed a bill that will help veterans exposed to burn pits and another that will help the U.S.’ semiconductor industry.

So, with the recent narrative of success, Biden supporters and staffers have latched onto a collection of Biden memes once used by critics on the left and right: “Dark Brandon.” You might see Biden looking like a supervillain, smirking and relishing in victory. In using this meme, his supporters seem to be saying: “You might not like him, but he’s getting stuff done.”

A bill is passing? Dark Brandon is at work. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is raided? Just another win for Dark Brandon. And on and on. (Brandon, of course, is a name rightwingers use to refer to Biden online after a viral incident involving NASCAR driver Brandon Brown.)

A deputy press secretary leaned into it. A sitting senator has tweeted an image with Dark Brandon vibes; according to Politico, that was actually ripped from a post on Weibo by Chinese artist Yang Quan. Quan also made the image depicting Biden on the Iron Throne made of guns.

It’s certainly a departure from how Biden is sometimes portrayed. Throughout the Biden presidency, critics on social media in particular spring into action at opportunities to highlight gaffes and criticize Biden’s body language, mannerisms, or speech. When the Commander-in-Chief fell off his bike in June, the video was screenshotted and memed repeatedly. When a Twitter account affiliated with the Republican National Committee posted a clip of Biden struggling to put on his suit jacket on a windy runway this week, some users in the replies questioned Biden’s ability to dress himself. (Many of the replies were focused on the FBI raid at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, however.)

Where Did the Dark Brandon Meme Come From?

Elements of the Dark Brandon meme have origins that stretch back years. Glowing eyes or laser eyes have been a symbol of power in memes for at least a decade, according to the website Know Your Meme. (And for even longer in popular media, according to TV Tropes.) A January 6 rioter made memes of herself with glowing eyes, and the Dark MAGA meme movement shows a shadowy, glowing-eyed Trump and urges him to take back the country and strike down enemies.

In May, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene posted an image to Twitter showing herself with laser eyes and using the hashtag “#UltraMAGA.”

But rightwingers don’t have a sole claim over laser eyes as an image of power. As just one example, Twitch streamer and left-wing political commentator Hasan Piker has a glowing-eyes Twitter profile picture.

Taking a tour of the myriad explainer pieces now blanketing the internet does not reveal a distinct, mutually agreed-upon origin point for the Dark Brandon trend. The memes have been used by rightwingers and leftists, and both groups have shown dissatisfaction with his presidency; both have portrayed him with an eyepatch or laser eyes or a calculating, commanding presence, an ironic foil to their lack of faith in him or his ability to pass his agenda. And now that it’s being used by Biden’s close staff to cheer for recent wins, some have claimed the meme has crossed over into “cringe” territory or is now dead.

“Political twitter finally learning about the dark brandon meme is gonna make this website borderline unusable this week,” Washington Post writer Taylor Lorenz tweeted.

Some Dark Brandon posters are being ironic when portraying Biden as powerful or villainous. But in darker, conspiratorial corners of the internet, serious posts framing Biden as “evil” are not uncommon. QAnon rhetoric framed Donald Trump as the heroic vanquisher of a mysterious “cabal” that runs the country: the sinister-sounding group was generally described as including Democratic politicians.

Other negative portrayals of a powerful Biden are based in religion. A Tennessee pastor once claimed anyone who believed Biden was the legitimate president was “demon possessed”. Last year, Reuters fact checkers had to correct the record after multiple viral posts claimed a camera draped in a black covering was a “demon” watching Biden address Congress. These portrayals weren’t Dark Brandon memes, but the imagery was there.

“Part of what I think is funny is that [right wing memers] leaned too much into this ‘he’s the demon,’” said Gregory Donovan, a communications professor at Fordham University who studies digital youth culture. “And it kind of made him look perhaps more powerful, and in a weird way, likable.”

Donovan recalled another time the internet turned a rightwing meme against itself, though the stakes were less cosmic. The phrase “Thanks, Obama” originated from GOP memes and then evolved.

“It started with a conservative blaming Obama for anything that went wrong, but it got so absurd. People started being like, ‘just got a premium reduction on my health care thanks to Obama,’” Donovan said.

While the laser eyes and Biden demonism are played out for some, this week is going to be the first time many people are seeing the meme. And treating the meme like a joke can reduce its power to negatively influence Biden, Donovan said.

“There is now a whole group of people who's going to see it as a joke, find it funny, and generally see it as positive to Biden. And when they're passively going over these names and social media, whether it is actually anti- or pro-Biden, they're just going to kind of see it all as that same joke,” Donovan added. 

“So it really does defang some of the negativity, not across the board, but at least around this particular imagery.”