Dark Brandon is fandom culture
Tags: Joe Biden, American politics extended universe, deviates from canon, a/b/o
One of the foundational beliefs of this newsletter is that, especially at the elite level, many important spheres of human activity and commerce including politics, newsmedia, and entertainment now largely take place on, and derive their context from, huge tech-industry platforms that are, formally and culturally speaking, not very different from the message boards and forums of the Old Internet, and therefore that understanding the world in 2022 requires historical and genealogical knowledge of internet culture1. Put another way, some immense portion of elite energy is currently directed toward what scholars of and participants in the pre-platform internet will recognize as trolling forums, winning message-board arguments, complaining to mods, and other, similar activities -- activities that were undignified and debasing to the circa-1995 teenaged pornography addicts, Japanophile I.T. administrators, awkward goths, and underemployed lawyers who once made up the core population of early forum posters, let alone to the titans of industry, public intellectuals, Hollywood icons, etc. who are now the foremost practitioners of message-board culture, spending their days, as they do, trying to have the last word and accrue upvotes in our bleak approximation of a public sphere -- and longtime forum posters are, despite their obvious mental-emotional insufficiencies, the people best-equipped to apprehend and contextualize American public life in the 21st century.
I bring this up because of “Dark Brandon,” the meme in which the American President Joe Biden is presented as a violent, uncompromising, pitiless, supernaturally powerful, and ruthlessly effective chief executive. The meme emerged out of right-wing internet communities earlier this year, but has since been ironically co-opted, first by Biden-skeptical leftists, and more recently by Biden-supporting liberals. If you haven’t encountered it before, this video collects some of the “Dark Brandon” canon and establishes the “vibe” — an appropriation of the violent fantasy aesthetics of what shitposting Trump dead-enders call “Dark MAGA” — pretty well:
A great deal -- almost certainly too much -- has already been written about “Dark Brandon.” The Independent, for example, frets that Dark Brandon might shift the balance of acceptable discourse by “normalizing extremist rhetoric”; Politico, on the other hand, examines Dark Brandon as a victory of messaging and campaign strategy, “a rare moment of internet virality” that results in some welcome “internet love.” Matt Yglesias argues that Dark Brandon “speaks to the real hopes, fears, and aspirations of moderate Democrats who truly want to believe that Bidenism is quietly a more hard-edged approach to politics than it superficially seems”; Conor Fitzgerald claims at Unherd that Dark Biden is “proof that the left can’t meme.”
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Any or all of these arguments may be true, but it also seems to me that confining one’s analysis of “Dark Brandon” to a straightforward political-electoral context -- examining how the meme reflects or shifts the partisan balance of power in the political sphere -- misses some important context. This is not a mere “political meme” in the manner of “binders full of women” or whatever: “Dark Brandon” draws on patterns and rituals much older, more terrifying, and vastly more dorky than the world of parody Twitter accounts and extremism studies. Dark Brandon is a work of fandom.
More precisely, “Dark Brandon” is a fanfiction/fanart trope that has emerged within the American Politics Extended Universe fandom. It has been interpreted and expressed, like a beloved fandom ship or frequently depicted genderswap, in video edits, illustrations, and works of short (i.e. Tweet-length) fiction; more recently, “Dark Brandon” has been tacitly acknowledged -- to the thrill of some but not all fandom participants! -- by close associates of the subject of the trope itself, in precisely the same way a producer or director of a TV show or movie might share fan-art on Twitter.
It can be hard to recognize that Dark Brandon is a fanart trope because most of the participants in the American Politics Extended Universe fandom are reluctant to explicitly admit that they belong to a fandom centered around a prominent entertainment product. But make no mistake: Dark Brandon was developed and shared by people who spend several hours a day looking at screens, developing strong emotional attachments, and thinking about the complicated narrative arc of their preferred fictional metaverse. (I suspect that many people who subscribe to this newsletter belong to the APEU fandom, even if their participation is limited to tweeting about their favorite or least favorite characters. I know I do!)
This isn’t to dismiss Dark Brandon as “merely” fandom. There are plenty of other, better reasons to dismiss Dark Brandon, such as “we all have a limited amount of time on this planet and should use it in spiritually fulfilling and socially rewarding ways.” And, if anything, seeing the ways in which Dark Brandon’s emergence and evolution mirror fandom tropes should make the meme more interesting, not less, because what’s at stake isn’t the marginal victories of political messaging or the changing social meaning of a particular aesthetic, but a whole mode of understanding and engaging with politics.
Insofar, and so long as, American politics is treated by politicians, journalists, and news consumers as an entertainment product, consumed and discussed online, it will grow fandoms like any other entertainment product. I suppose this is not a particularly mind-blowing point; anyone who has ever suggested on Twitter that Kamala Harris is maybe not the best public speaker will be very aware of the fandom tendencies of a certain strain of “political junkie.” But less well appreciated, I think, is the way those fandoms will evolve beyond swarming hives of champions and torchbearers — indeed, the way they already have evolved — to produce creative work strung together by tropes like “Dark Brandon,” just like every other fandom does. The next step (besides Joe Biden mpreg and a/b/o) comes when the fandom swallows the product itself.
We have seen before, for example, the ways in which certain important developments in Anglophone liberal left can be explained as the byproduct of the culture of the message board Something Awful, and the extent to which some of the world’s richest people find themselves acting in the familiar manner and responding to the same incentives as the most boorish kinds of old-school forum posters.