Plagiarising Right-wing humour points to a lack of originality
After a couple of legislative wins during the week, Joe Biden’s supporters sought to capitalise on the sudden turnaround in his fortunes by doing a little light shitposting. This meant widespread sharing of “Dark Brandon” memes, images of Biden ominously threatening to end the “Malarkey”, with eyes aglow and lightning coming out of his fingers. They’re a direct rip-off of similar Trump-related memes that have been popping up on the internet over the last few months.
This illustrates two important points about meme culture in 2022. The first, as we know, is that the Left Can’t Meme. The second is that, in 2022, innovations in meme culture flow from Right to Left and never in the other direction. Why is that?
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First, some terminology. The “Brandon” nickname comes from an incident at a Nascar Rally in 2021 where an NBC reporter tried to pretend that the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go Brandon” (the driver she was interviewing) instead of “Fuck Joe Biden”.
Earlier this year, Right-wing posters on forums and social media began producing Dark MAGA memes — pictures of Donald Trump with vengeful, triumphalist overtones, implying that the former president was ready to return for a second term to purge his enemies. The defining Dark MAGA meme is a degraded digital image of Trump on flag bedecked stage, toting a machine gun.
So every element of the Dark Brandon meme is a limp imitation of something created on the Right. It’s impossible to trace these things but there’s some justification for thinking that the Dark Brandon meme itself originated on the Right, where posters often produce images of Biden looking deranged or malevolent albeit in a pathetic way.
It’s not the first time that this has happened in Biden’s presidency. As the inflation crisis began to bite, and Americans started noticing that their visit to the petrol pump was costing them a lot more than it used to, they would notice a sticker of Biden pointing to the escalating price gleefully announcing “I did that!”
In response (as the Biden presidency tried to retrospectively label the inflation crisis the Putin Price Hike) some nameless Left-wing agitators began putting up Putin “I did that” stickers, or ones with Putin and Trump together (“we did that!”). This week, the @POTUS Twitter account released a video listing the President’s accomplishments with an “I did that” sticker pointing to them.
As this Slate piece notes, as soon as “Brandon” was coined and popularised by the Right, it came into ironic usage on the Left as a way of describing Biden and his presidency. In that, it joins phrases like cuck or SJW which were coined on the Right before gradually creeping into Left-wing usage.
What explains the crossover of language themes and memes from Right to Left and not vice versa?
The defining attitude of Left-wing popular culture — music, comedy, journalism — since the 60s has been Fuck the Man: be the outsider, punching up against power instead of down against the powerless. But over time Left-wingers have embraced technocracy and taken over establishment institutions, which includes the organs of cultural production that embody their values. So it becomes harder and harder to think of yourself as the insurgent outsider when the CIA is explicitly recruiting based on your values. It’s a loss that gnaws at them.
Meanwhile on the Left, you only need to look as far as Late Night comedy — that most embarrassing of American institutions — to see how culturally deprived it has become. Since Trump, we’ve had Stephen Colbert cavorting around with dancers dressed up as Syringes in support of vaccine mandates, and the cast of Saturday Night Live standing around the piano serenading Hilary Clinton and Robert Mueller like glassy-eyed North Koreans performing for Kim Jong Un. That’s the kind of necrotic cultural artefact the mainstream produces now; it’s no surprise they reach to steal some of frog Twitter’s evil vigour.
Whether creators, usually of the Right, can make a greater lasting impact on the wider culture is unknown but the signs are positive. If they were to do so, it would be much more significant that some stolen memes.