“It can’t be bargained with,” intones the voice-over, as ominous music pulses in the background. “It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity. Or remorse. Or fear. And it absolutely will not stop.” This dialogue is originally from The Terminator, but that is not who appears in the video. Instead, pictured sitting upon an imposing throne made entirely of assault rifles is … Joe Biden. Or rather his alter ego, Dark Brandon. Images flash across the screen: Biden with lasers shooting from his eyes. Biden with a beard and an eye patch. Biden summoning lightning from the sky. “To all those of you who voted for President Trump,” the president declares, “there’s no way out.” He grins.
I can see you are confused. Let’s back up.
It’s hard to think of someone who less represents the id of the internet than Joseph Robinette Biden. Indeed, after four years of a terminally online president, part of Biden’s appeal was that voters were pretty sure he didn’t even know how to operate his Twitter account. And yet, for more than a decade, Biden has been a surprise social-media superstar.
Today, it’s Dark Brandon. We’ll get to him in a moment. But in the beginning, there was Diamond Joe.
This was a persona lovingly crafted by The Onion. For years, the satirical newspaper recast the vice president as the country’s wacky uncle. This Biden installed slot machines in the Naval Observatory, played scratch-off lotto cards during Obama’s inauguration, and invoked the Freedom of Information Act to find out when a woman got off from work. Incorrigible but lovable, he was constantly getting into and out of trouble. A representative story begins:
The White House suffered a severe bedbug infestation last week after Vice President Joe Biden reportedly “scored” a discarded recliner chair that “someone was just throwing out” on the corner of Windom Road and 32nd Street. “It’s plenty comfy, and I’ll tell ya, they don’t make ‘em with levers like this anymore,” said Biden, scratching at a series of red welts on his arms as he pointed out the pocket on the side that could hold both a remote control and a Coors tallboy. “It reclines all the way back. All the way. And you wanna know what else? It holds two people, if you know what I mean.”
A wizened Washington mainstay tapped by Obama as his running mate precisely because of his unthreatening vanilla vibe, Biden was the last person one would expect to become an off-color internet meme. He was the epitome of offline; the stuffy establishment suit to Obama’s outsider. And that’s what made the Diamond Joe gag funny. The meme’s appeal rested in its absurdity.
Ever since, the comedic contrast between Biden’s fundamental boringness and the internet’s edginess has turned him into irresistible fodder for the Very Online. Today, there is even an elaborate ongoing web series in which a deepfake version of Biden stumbles through misadventures in a medieval fantasy video game. The series has over 2 million views to date. (Strong content warning applies.)
Novelty YouTube videos aside, though, Biden reached his online apotheosis with the advent of Dark Brandon. This meme began as anti-American propaganda produced by a Chinese artist:
The image was meant to depict the U.S. leader as a tyrant in command of an evil empire. But through the arcane alchemy of social-media telephone, it is now being shared earnestly by White House officials and Democratic senators.
How did this happen?