On a grey day in February, I headed to Easton, Massachusetts, to browse at one of five newly christened “Let’s Go Brandon” (formerly “New England for Trump”) stores. It nestled in a modest strip mall, next to a low-key hair salon and across the street from Lemery’s Auto & Motorcycle repair. At a table inside, a cheerful middle-aged white woman arranged a careful stack of red, white, and blue socks. Her pink sweatshirt read “Let’s Go Brandon/FJB”—short for “Fuck Joe Biden.”
A man with feathered grey hair and a black leather jacket came through the door with a delivery of paper towels. He engaged the clerk in a chat about the several “Freedom Convoys” headed to Washington, DC, that week to protest mask and vaccine mandates. The stores had been gathering donations, and he planned to join the Boston convoy. The clerk said she’d been waving flags at intersections in support of the truckers. She gestured to her red pickup outside the store, bedecked with two American flags and a huge navy blue “LET’S GO BRANDON” announcement flapping from the back.
I explored the merchandise while they chatted. Exuberant flags, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons announced that MAGA (Make America Great Again) isn’t going anywhere; that Trump supporters love God and guns; that vaccination mandates violate freedom; that Blue Lives Matter; that Biden “pees sitting down.” And again and again, that signature line: “Let’s Go Brandon.”
The slogan became a tongue-in-cheek rallying cry for former President Donald Trump in October 2021 after the Sparks 300 NASCAR race at Talladega, Alabama. Brandon Brown, a NASCAR Xfinity Series driver, had just won, and an NBC reporter stood interviewing him in front of the grandstands. A group of young men in the bleachers were in a raucous political mood, tearing off their T-shirts, fist pumping, and chanting: “Fuck Joe Biden!” When the microphone captured their strains, the reporter tactfully suggested they were chanting “Let’s Go Brandon.” Since then, the phrase has been uttered on the floor of Congress, stitched into Republican ball gowns, and hashtagged across the right-wing nation.
Hostility toward Biden is hard for many liberals to understand, but the steady stream of lower- to middle-income Trump enthusiasts who use this store come not only for swag but also solidarity. Many will be feeling the pinch of inflation and the global supply chain crisis. Some will have been frustrated for years by corporate outsourcing that stripped American factory jobs; others may be middle-class suburbanites and small business owners angry about where their tax dollars are going. Spurred on by right-wing media, they are frustrated by what they see as unfair favoritism and “entitlements” handed out to immigrants and people of color. And they resent the way “elite PC whiners,” with all their cultural capital, have seemed to denigrate white and working-class identities while functioning as oppressive language police protecting the feelings of unworthy groups.
The sly “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan is a quintessential Trump-era rejoinder to such grievances. As Ben Rhodes, former speechwriter for President Obama, wryly remarked, Trump’s rise was predicated on “saying things that the other guys won’t,” often through sweeping disparagement of his enemies and norm-violating candor. Trump’s “supporter-created cyber domain” followed his lead with a swell of “shitposting”: angry, provocative, and often ironic social media sprinklings. All of this has widened the Overton window of acceptable political discourse—to the point that you can now buy “Let’s Go Brandon” socks with an image of President Trump giving the double middle finger. If, in the words of Lauren Berlant, “anti-PC means ‘I feel unfree’,” socks like these strike a blow for freedom.
There’s been a long history in the West linking working-class masculinity to impolite and “improper” speech, a dynamic the sociolinguist Peter Trudgill referred to as “covert prestige.” Politesse may be statusful, but it’s also marked as feminine, sometimes problematically so—and today’s performances of right-wing masculinity in the United States tend to feminize not only normative verbal respectability but also liberalism itself. Breaking the verbal rules and making it fun has become part of the Trump brand, with supporters exulting in flags and T-shirts that read “Fuck your feelings” and “No more bullshit” as they champion draconian anti-immigrant policies. Trump-supporting women are encouraged to do the same, but the pink on their shirts preserves some semiotic femininity. Notice the nestings of the denigrated feminine: Biden pees sitting down, after all, which might seem to lump all women in with the libs, but the projection of feminine weakness vs masculine strength happens at different levels of scale (it’s “fractally recursive,” in Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine’s phrasing). Better to be a Trump-loving woman than any pussified Dem at all.
But profane masculine pride doesn’t explain the faux drama of the way the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan conceals its underlying meaning. Why not simply: “Fuck Joe Biden”? Where does this game of semiotic peekaboo come from, and why does it have such affective appeal? Some critics have dismissed the coding as “juvenile,” but I suggest there are more complex semiotic dynamics at work.
Several cultural and political histories feed the slogan’s disconnect between signifier and signified and play into its semiotic affordances. Since 9/11, the American left wing has increasingly engaged in the ironic critique of politics in venues ranging from late-night comedy shows to the Onion. But, as Viveca S. Greene has documented, the white nationalist right wing has honed its own political satire over the last decade or so. The sarcastic “Thanks, Obama” began trending around 2009 on the Right, though it seems meek by comparison with today’s underlying belligerence. In the 2010s, on subversive and ultimately right-wing chat sites like 4chan, aggressive postings involved a perpetual “twinkle of winking irony,” “an escape route,” argues Dale Beran, for hypersensitive young men who couldn’t afford to show their own deep vulnerability.
Yet its satirical guise is important to its meme-worthiness. An Oregon man finished up a televised Christmas Eve phone call with the Bidens by saying “Let’s Go Brandon,” later telling media outlets it was “innocent jest” and he “meant no disrespect.” If he’d just said, “Fuck you, Biden,” it would have sounded like artless personal vitriol; using the slogan, he was able to wink to the larger community of Trump supporters, who took up the moment with a series of playful memes. Collective amusement builds community with others who are in on the joke, and in the Trump era, as Donna M. Goldstein, Kira Hall, and Matthew Ingram remind us, barbed humor can be a powerful political weapon.
But many “Let’s Go Brandon” enthusiasts may have something else on their minds, too. Trump supporters have deeply resented the scolding of the so-called PC liberals, often claiming that their language is being censored. They deem the sensitive phrasings espoused on college campuses the work of fragile “snowflakes,” and many have abandoned conventional social media platforms for alternative venues like Parler where they can express their anger and hostility more freely.
The very fact that “Let’s Go Brandon” is coded may be a nod to any would-be censors. Its little game of hiding and showing seems to mock the pretense of verbal respectability and empathic sensitivity so important to many liberals. Consider a T-shirt I saw in the store, for instance, which draws attention to how thin the slogan’s semiotic veneer is by proclaiming a desire “to solve the puzzle: F_CK JOE B_DEN” above the slogan, “Let’s Go Brandon” (the design may also be inspired by liberal conventions of deleting select vowels of potentially offensive words).
The “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan can thus be a locus, for some, of gleeful affective energy that bespeaks resentment toward the very idea that one might have to mince words. Meanwhile, its barely-there veneer of decorum can be exploited to offer a bit of plausible deniability (that Christmas Eve caller spoke “innocently” to President Biden, right?).
In fact, plausible deniability has a recent history of doing some serious work on the political right. The white supremacist Richard Spencer concluded a 2016 speech by shouting “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory” into an auditorium of Nazi salutes, then contended he had done so in a “spirit of irony and exuberance.” Neo-Nazi websites have urged their followers to create a gap between signifier and signified by using a light tone in online comments, so that the “unindoctrinated” reader can’t tell whether they’re joking. Trump, of course, became well-known for his indirect, racist dog-whistles; provocations that are superficially not about race but still communicate negative messages about racialized groups. Most famously, the mysterious oracular figure known as “Q” signaled for a couple of years in cryptic fashion about the coming violent “Storm” waiting to overthrow the Democrats for a Trump-led totalitarian state. Q’s signaling was so opaque that “digital armies” of “Anons” dedicated hours, weeks, and months of time on social media to collectively decoding what they thought were Q’s thrilling underlying meanings. In all these cases, the gap between signifier and signified is exploited, hinting at imminent right-wing power and violence while attempting to skirt charges of hate speech or incitement.
Elsewhere, I have given the name “alt-signaling” to the right-wing pattern of using indirect or cryptic semiotic forms to gesture toward sinister meaning. But alt-signaling isn’t just about dodging accusations. When the speaker’s deeper meaning takes clandestine form—sometimes even in plain sight—it benefits from the status of secrecy, a quality that, as Graham Jones elaborates, can bring the frisson of power. Alex Pillen has described a flirtatious, fun, and sometimes aggressive joking register in Sri Lanka called boru that is based on “obvious pretense.” The speaker says something that isn’t quite what they mean, but because the pretense is so obvious, Pillen argues, “[the speaker’s] superiority is confirmed by the power to deceive without having to hide it or fear its consequences.” Similarly, the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan traffics in (to use Pillen’s words) “revealing and accentuating the liberty and the power to deceive.”
In a more sinister vein, though, the power of this peekaboo from behind the ramparts sometimes stems from its intimations of violence. The US right-wing “militia-sphere” has ramped up its activities on social media, stoking a “martyr myth” that they are imperiled by liberals, gun control, and COVID-19-related restrictions. Brandishing their weapons has become a widespread response to this feeling of disempowerment. And so, for instance, the right-wing clothing and gift store BringAmmo.com sells “Let’s Go Brandon” wrapping paper, with their menacing web address interspersed in smaller font.
The veteran-owned “Bottle Breacher” company sells a bottle opener shaped like a grenade, called the “Let’s Go Brandon Freedom Frag.” The term “frag,” short for a fragmentary grenade, may to some onlookers drag with it a colloquial meaning from the Vietnam War era, when frustrated GIs would “frag” or kill unpopular senior officers. Through semiotic transfer, this product appears to map the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan onto the notion of mutiny.
Still more directly, gun vendors like My Southern Tactical now sell ammo and gun components stamped with “Let’s Go Brandon.” Sometimes the words are flanked by an image of Biden wearing a mask, which (to its intended audience) indexes feminized liberal cowardice and the oppression of freedom. Through such repeated associations, the phrase “Let’s Go Brandon” becomes saturated with the notion that the right wing is—or will be—in combat with an existential enemy.
Evidently, such whispers about the preparations of a violent alternative state appeal to those on the outermost reaches of the right wing. A grainy photograph posted to Twitter in early 2022 shows a “Let’s Go Branon [sic]” banner draped at an overpass, flanked by swastikas.
Semiotic moments like this intensify the contrastive stances of “Let’s Go Brandon”: one enthusiastic and jocular, the other sinister and deadly. Such strategic contradictions resonate with other semiotic patterns on the alt right. In Arthur Jones’s Feels Good Man, Joel Finkelstein, director of the Contagion Network Research Institute, suggests that the white supremacist “Pepe the Frog” meme appeals because “he combines this impossible mixture of innocence and evil. Like, he has this kind of knowing smile while he performs acts that are really atrocious.” Military memes sometimes make the same move, winking in ludic fashion while alluding to violence in combat.
Such repeated stances of levity in reference to hostile acts encourage a mindset of moral anomie. Arguably, dehumanization becomes easier in such a semiotic context.
Pillen’s discussion of Sri Lankan boru jokes suggests that two tones, aggressive and playful, can “feed off each other,” and that “their aesthetic maintains a unitary (and therefore ambiguous) power.” Each use of “Let’s Go Brandon” could imply enthusiastic endorsement and aggressive hostility. It can be made suitable for dressing up a child—a young girl on the store’s Facebook feed in February 2022 wears a “Let’s Go Brandon” sweatshirt while giving a double thumbs up—and for dressing up a bid to bring ammo. Its ambiguity gives it broad affordances; there’s something for the whole family here.
Like the store I visited, the “Let’s Go Brandon” slogan provides a gathering point for a community that currently feels itself in a state of frustrated imminence. As affect theorists have made clear, political life is substantially driven by moods and atmospheres, and “Let’s Go Brandon” has an abundance of affective possibility, all of it able to travel through memes and their affective contagion. The slogan is funny and fun, it offers the pretense of a widely shared secret, and it enacts the power of not having to keep the secret altogether hidden. It makes a mockery of left-wing sensitivity, and it points toward the possibility of a roaring political comeback. Some of the contexts in which it’s used suggest gleeful hostility as it hums in resonance with all the signs surrounding it, be they swastikas or the “Make Liberals Cry Again” flag on the store wall. It may seem juvenile, but it’s semiotically effective, genuinely galvanizing, and—in some hands, anyway—potentially sinister.
Still, some Biden supporters recently found a way to keep laughing. The new genre of “Dark Brandon” memes feature Biden carrying out heroic political feats with glowing eyes. The images reappropriate the Brandon concept while mocking the “Dark MAGA” memes that earnestly feature an infernal-eyed Trump. Semiotic vengeance, then, is hardly the sole purview of the right―but as the FBI raids Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, we can only brace ourselves to see whether the right wing’s response will include material violence.
Illustrator bio: Colleen Pesci is a visual artist, educator, and curator/founder of The Casserole Series.