It’s a year today since the triumph of then-candidate Joe Biden over the then-incumbent Donald Trump. But in the 12 months since, some have struggled to accept it. Not just the Trump supporters who continue to insist the election was stolen, but also the Democrats who seem to believe that Biden’s hold on power is so tenuous, so fragile, that it could all fall apart at any moment.
This mindset has been on full display this very week, during which the American press has offered readers and viewers pretty much nonstop coverage of an utterly stupid controversy. If you’ve been lucky enough to remain unaware of it, the basic gist is as follows: on October 30, Associated Press reporter Colleen Long tweeted that the pilot on her Southwest Airlines flight from Houston to Albuquerque had signed off after landing with the phrase, “Let’s go Brandon” — to the shock and horror of several passengers, who let out “audible gasps” upon hearing it.
“Let’s go Brandon,” in case you missed it, is a Right-wing meme that originated at a Nascar race. The crowd was engaged in a raucous chant of “Fuck Joe Biden!” which was clearly audible in the background of an NBC Sports interview with Brandon Brown, a charismatic underdog driver who had just won his first race — but the interviewer claimed, bizarrely, that the crowd was actually shouting, “Let’s go Brandon.”
Whether she genuinely misheard the chant or was only pretending to, the incident went viral. First, Right-wing Americans cited it as an example of the mainstream media’s untrustworthiness — which they believe is pervasive — when it comes to any story that’s unflattering to Democrats. But then, inevitably, the phrase became a meme: a fun, new, coded way to say “Fuck Joe Biden” without actually saying it.
In the weeks since, “Let’s go Brandon” has popped up in a number of places, including an October 21 speech on the House floor by Rep. Bill Posey of Florida. But it’s this alleged airplane incident, and the response to it, that reveal something truly fascinating about its place in our cultural moment.
Based on nothing but Long’s twitter thread — in which she describes demanding access to the locked cockpit in order to confront the pilot — the media sphere erupted with a response that one might generously describe as disproportionate (or, less generously, as a hysterical pearl-clutching panic). Former federal agent and CNN analyst Asha Rangappa compared the meme to an ISIS loyalty oath. Others suggested the phrase indicated a state of impaired judgment, public drunkenness, or maybe even dangerous rage. One widely shared comment, purportedly from an anonymous pilot, stopped just short of painting the accused as a Trump-loving suicide bomber who might well crash the plane to make a political point.
Even the more restrained critiques were illuminating in their tone. Consider this representative tweet from Regina Marston, a 2020 Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives:
— Regina Marston (@Marston4ca42) October 31, 2021
It’s important to note that all this conversation and coverage surrounds an incident that may not have even happened. Nobody apart from Long seems to have heard the pilot’s comment, and it’s easy to imagine a misunderstanding. Long was working on a story about the “Brandon” meme, and would’ve been on high alert for anything that sounded remotely like the phrase. But the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros were facing off in baseball’s World Series the night of the flight: if I had to bet, I’d put my money on the reporter imagining “Brandon” when the pilot said “Let’s go Braves” (not a political comment, but a good-natured dig at all the Houston-based passengers who would’ve been rooting for their home team.)
But let’s leave aside the question of whether this even happened: it’s become irrelevant. Let’s also leave aside the question of what an appropriate response would be, if it had. Let’s forget about everything except this, the heart of the complaint: that a man with a PA system and a captive audience of a hundred or so air travellers used this platform, however briefly, to slightly disrespect the president. And in response, the people in charge of our national conversation have called him a terrorist and demanded the man be fired… whoever he is.
We’ve just come off four years of barely-veiled innuendo about the size of Trump’s hands; of cheering on the Congresswoman who publicly referred to him as a “motherfucker”; of cartoons and T-shirts and statues and giant inflatable blimps depicting the president as a big fat babyman with a tiny little wiener. We defended the comedienne who posed with a latex mock-up of the President’s severed head. But suddenly, in 2021, “Let’s go Brandon” is a step too far?
It is a plot twist that beggars belief: a progressive Left that once prided itself on speaking truth to power — in a country founded on cheeky irreverence for authority, no less! — transformed virtually overnight into a pack of quavering church ladies who’ll thank you to watch your language, mister.
The hysteria over “Let’s go Brandon” is the most recent and potent example of the incredible thin-skinned-ness of today’s Left, but it’s also part of a trend. Biden has been by turns evasive, irritable, or simply absent when it comes to interacting with the press since his inauguration — and the press, which prided itself on its antagonistic relationship with the White House during the Trump years, has been comparably obsequious to the new administration. (White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki even received a glowing profile, complete with photos by Annie Liebovitz, in Vogue.) Comedians lampoon him less, and less cruelly, than they did his predecessor; some prefer to mock the President’s critics, rather than the man himself. Even the invocation of “terrorism” in response to the pilot’s alleged comment isn’t without precedent; since the January 6 Capitol riot, a with-us-or-against-us mentality has emerged amongst many pundits who are liable to paint anyone who opposes Biden as a de facto Trumpian insurrectionist.
Some will say that this is pure, fearful authoritarianism. Like a substitute teacher who senses herself on the verge of losing control of her unruly classroom of snot-nosed 12-year-olds, the American Left cannot, will not, tolerate insubordination. Not now, not after we came this close to another four years with Trump in the White House. Not when our democracy itself is at risk!
But it’s that terror, that sense that the balance of political power continues to hang by a thread, that reveals a deeper truth. Republicans might be the ones who pushed the false narrative of a stolen presidency, who rushed the Capitol to interrupt last year’s election certification, who continue to grumble about how Joe Biden doesn’t really belong in the White House.
But Democrats do not contradict this narrative — and in fact are only strengthening it — when we insist on protecting Joe Biden from the ordinary irreverence that we’ve always displayed for our political leaders. Being able to say “Fuck the President,” even in so many actual words, is one of America’s most fundamental freedoms, a fact that anyone who wants to be president has always been expected to both understand and respect. And when we suddenly try to change the rules for Biden, it only betrays a bizarre lack of confidence in his ability to fulfill the requirements of the office — and reinforces the decidedly Trumpian narrative that he’s something less than a legitimate Potus. It says that his hold on power is so tenuous that we have to protect it at any cost, even if it means punishing ordinary Americans for what would under any other circumstances be protected, even celebrated, speech.
“This is not normal” was a continuous refrain after 2016, a phrase we uttered over and over during Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House. And it was true: Trump was a uniquely terrible president, one who made an insane, albeit unsuccessful, play to hang onto power after the American people voted him out. But Biden? Biden represented the triumph of democracy over this bizarre threat. Biden represented a return to business as usual. Biden was elected like any other president, inaugurated like any other president, and, despite an unprecedented tantrum from his predecessor and the unparalleled pressures of a global pandemic, has governed during his first year in office like any other president. Biden, we sighed with relief, was going to make American normal again.
But the fact that the President’s supporters don’t seem to accept he’s one of the most powerful men on the planet? That’s not normal. Nor is their insistence on treating his presidency as if it’s perpetually on the verge of collapse — to the point where “Let’s go Brandon” represents an existential threat that must be fiercely and forcefully stamped out.
Perhaps this is what happens to a resistance so drunk on its own disempowerment that it doesn’t know how to rule responsibly — a movement so invested in its underdog status that it never considered what to do when it wins. This wildly reactive attitude took over in the wake of 2016, when Trump’s election win was unthinkable, impossible, unacceptable; it meant that something had gone horribly wrong. In the four-year war that ensued, we became not just reactive but myopic: our orange enemy loomed so large in our imaginations that we couldn’t see anything else, not even the horizon beyond him. Beating him was all that mattered. We didn’t even want to win; we just wanted him to lose.
And he did. But much like Trump himself, too many powerful people on the Left have spent the past year acting as if they don’t entirely believe it.
The problem is, Trump can afford to keep pretending that the 2020 election result might not stick. Democrats, on the other hand, are running out of time to embrace reality. Once, we spoke truth to power; now, we have the power. We have the presidency. We have two short years remaining to get things done in Washington before the next election cycle fully kicks in. And if we don’t accept this, if we don’t learn to tolerate the annoyed, angry — even profane — dissent of the losers who have now found themselves pushed to the political margins, it may be a very long time before we get another chance at power again.