By: Elijah Parish
To paraphrase the entire philosophy of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci: the ruling class can’t meme. In a bit more depth, he viewed intellectual movements as being split between ruling intellectuals who perpetuate the regime and organic intellectuals who arise naturally to challenge the status quo. Ruling intellectuals exist to justify existing cultural norms and reinforce hegemony. Organic intellectuals try to take hegemony by shifting public opinion. So the question is, what does it look like when the rebels take hegemony and how do they respond to their organic successors?
For those of you not familiar with “Let’s Go Brandon,” it is a less vulgar version of “F*** Joe Biden.” In stadiums around the country, fans were chanting the more direct message, until one reporter — either mistakenly or in an effort to mask the profanity — reinterpreted the chant as “Let’s Go Brandon,” Brandon being the person she was interviewing. Thus a meme was born. Twitter had a field day. Songs were written that topped the iTunes charts. The meme was witty. It was organic. It evoked images of a failing presidency characterized by record high inflation and a languishing economy, troops killed unnecessarily in Afghanistan, impotence on covid and immigration, and much more — all while remaining lighthearted.
And that’s the key. It was lighthearted. A common refrain early in the Biden presidency was “the adults are back,” and as Bill Maher noted after the Afghanistan debacle, no serious person paying attention could still believe this. The Biden administration became satirized. There’s a tight tie between comedy and challenging those in power, which is why dictators never allow themselves to be the butt of jokes; not to imply that Biden is a dictator — he alone couldn’t be one even if he wanted — merely to say, “Good luck making a political joke in North Korea, Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia.” As Hannah Arendt wrote in On Violence, “The greatest enemy of authority… is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.”
But this threat of lightheartedness is even worse than mere satirization. Much to the chagrin of myself and anyone else that follows politics consistently, most people just don’t. The majority of people vote on how a candidate makes them feel. Trump 2016 felt like he was challenging the ruling class and Clinton 2016 felt like she was the ruling class and thus Trump won. Trump 2020 made people feel unsafe and Biden 2020 gave people a sense of security and normalcy and thus Biden won. One could talk about policy until they’re blue in the face, it has little bearing on one’s gut feelings about a candidate. No policy could’ve saved 2016 Clinton and no policy could’ve saved 2020 Trump — only a change in people’s gut reactions could’ve saved them. This is why organically developing memes matter so much. A policy may shift the minds of the politically initiated, but memes change the national consciousness.
There is no inherent threat about people expressing dissatisfaction with Joe Biden. No one is trying to censor the polls which say his approval rating has dropped 15 to 20 points since entering office. However, a meme is different. “Let’s Go Brandon” represents a shift in how Americans view the president: a shift away from your comforting elderly grandfather and towards a senile old coot operating heavy machinery.
There’s another important side to this story: the seriousness of the response, especially in juxtaposition to the levity of the joke. There was a severe backlash to the meme. People tried to describe the chant as vulgar. Surely people aren’t upset over the vulgarity. Are we just going to forget the time Kathy Griffin pretended to decapitate Trump or when Samantha Bee called Ivanka a feckless C-word or when De Niro said “F—- Trump” at the Tony’s? No, the problem isn’t the vulgarity, it’s the opposite. The issue is that dissatisfaction can now be expressed with humor instead of rage. F Joe Biden is a minor story, Let’s Go Brandon is a threat. It wasn’t initiated by a wealthy entertainer or late night host, it simply grew naturally from the ground up. It can be proclaimed by young and old alike. Unlike cursing at a president, it isn’t nasty and hateful but amusing. And thus it is dangerous.
This is why the response to a joke is so paradoxically serious. One person described it as “very unsettling” when a pilot allegedly said “Let’s Go Brandon.” The chant has been compared to coded statements used by Nazis, the KKK, and ISIS. All of this in response to a meme expressing dissatisfaction with Joe Biden. The level of historical ignorance and ideological isolation one must have to think this is astronomical. What’s gone wrong such that a person could think “My life is in danger because my pilot doesn’t like the president?” Can anyone seriously think that joking about not liking the president is in any way remotely similar to white nationalism or radical islam? The backlash to “Let’s Go Brandon” may be best understood as the reflex of ruling intellectuals seeing a threat to their hegemony.
The response is serious because a joke is a serious threat.
Have a wonderful day. Think organically. Live with levity. And of course, Let’s Go Brandon.