If reading the words “Let’s go Brandon” drives you up a wall, well, that’s the plan.
The phrase sprang to life after NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast’s fateful effort to interview auto racer Brandon Brown, who had just won his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race. During the interview, a crowd behind Stavast could be heard loudly chanting “F--- Joe Biden,” a phrase Stavast interpreted for her audience as “Let’s go Brandon.” Conservatives argued that Stavast’s “correction” was further evidence that the national media was out to protect President Joe Biden at all costs.
But the motivation behind uttering “Let’s go Brandon” rapidly moved beyond just expressing solidarity with other conservative opponents of the president. More important is its aim to provoke a reaction from Democrats — the more outrageous and sputtering, the better. If the lefty media pundits who set the conversational agenda want to avoid fueling this social media fire from the right, they need to calm down. Fast.
“Let’s go Brandon” went viral in no small part because media outlets leapt at the chance to clutch their pearls over an f-bomb directed Biden’s way and to pontificate on the supposed deeper meaning behind the spread of the phrase.
Slate called the meme the new “right-wing rallying cry,” and NBC's "TODAY" show referred to it as a "battle cry." Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart compared the slogan to secret messages used by Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. Washington Post reporters Ashley Parker and Carissa Wolf dedicated an article to exploring how “Let’s go Brandon” symbolizes a broader socioeconomic and cultural alienation among conservatives. On CNN’s “New Day,” senior political analyst John Avlon went further, calling the phrase “not patriotic.”
Why does the phrase “Let’s go Brandon” get so many liberal-minded people so upset? In part because the phrase plays into the growing tribalization of politics, in which in-jokes like this rankle those on the outside and elicit knowing chuckles from those in on the gag. In the search for what the chant really says about America, our media ecosystem pointedly ignores the fact that it means nothing beyond its ability to provoke a reaction.
“Let’s go Brandon” is hardly the first intellectual property right-wingers have snatched to better tweak liberal noses. During the 2016 presidential campaign, for instance, Trump supporters using the generally unpleasant message board 4chan transformed Pepe the Frog — a nonpolitical character from a comic series created by cartoonist Matt Furie — into a symbol of right-wing hate. Before 4chan’s work, Pepe had no far-right associations. After Donald Trump’s embrace of the frog, it had no other associations, much to Furie’s enduring frustration.
It was liberals’ outrage over Pepe — just like their outrage over “Let’s go Brandon” — that validates conservative efforts to portray the left as wildly overreacting to obvious trolling. The Anti-Defamation League included Pepe on its list of hate symbols, and outrage over the cartoon frog burned so hot that Facebook implemented internal policies to control its spread. This gave right-wing memesters exactly what they wanted: an opportunity to portray the left as overzealous, censorious scolds eager to stamp out a bit of harmless fun.
Those on the online left are easy marks for memes like “Let’s go Brandon” and Pepe the Frog because progressives have increasingly embraced a philosophy of language that rejects Trumpian postmodernism. The MAGA movement has emphasized saying whatever is necessary to incite a reaction, from the staggering pace of lies expressed by Trump to the deadly Covid-19 denialism still plaguing certain GOP strongholds.
Meanwhile, liberal Americans and many Democratic politicians embrace the idea that words have moral power. In other words, how something is defined matters. To those Americans, words don’t just have the capacity to offend: Left unchecked, antisocial speech can cause real-world harm.
But right-wing rabble-rousers don’t care about some high-minded discussion of language and meaning. They’re out to cause a distraction that keeps Democrats from focusing on their victories. Democrats just passed a broadly popular $1.2 trillion domestic spending package that will improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people across party lines, racial divides and geography. Republicans are hoping that Democrats will distract themselves with over-the-top condemnations of the “Let’s go Brandon” boosters — allowing the GOP to spin the Democratic Party as more focused on shaming NASCAR fans than addressing the kitchen table issues that matter to regular people.
Unfortunately, people who should know better took the bait by treating a throwaway phrase as deserving of grave concern. Crass though it may be, pundits are wrong to imply that sloppy criticism of a duly elected president is dangerous or unpatriotic. As Matthew Rozsa writes in Salon, insulting presidential nicknames are at the core of our unapologetically expressive political culture. So is ignoring the desperate distractions of a party bankrupt of real ideas.
Like the modern GOP, “Let’s go Brandon” is an argument without substance. Language like this doesn’t need policing, which would be a dangerous disservice to our country and to the free expression that progressives hold dear. By losing their minds over the need to do something, too many prominent media and political figures are giving the right exactly what it wants. If Democrats hope to keep focused on the critical work in front of us, they’ll need to learn to ignore the GOP’s obvious bait.