If you want to be POTUS, you have to be prepared for the nicknames. The first president in my life, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was just plain “JFK”.
Then along came Lyndon Baines Johnson, the first president I had ever engaged with.
He was “LBJ” and, for a while, “Light Bulb Johnson”, because it was said that he went around the White House turning off the lights. And then there was the Vietnam War and we chanted in the streets: “LBJ! Pull out! Like your daddy should have done!”
Nixon was “Tricky Dick” or “Tricky” for short; Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter sort of faded away, and then there was Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, former cowboy host of a TV western and before that president of the Screen Actors Guild and hunter of “Reds under the bed”. Reagan was the guy the great Gore Vidal once called “The acting President”. And then, during his second term, I became an ex-pat, so missed the other presidents, and really did not care. Until Donald Trump, a man whose stationery screams “45th President of the United States”. Trump carried his New York City name: “Don the Con”, to the Oval Office.
American politesse is more refined, delicate and rococo than even what you are meant to do when you meet the Queen. Americans are, by and large, unfailingly polite. Politesse is key and everyone is “Ma’am” and “Sir”. Until you aren’t. And while the US has an elected Head of State, there is still an air of majesty about the Office.
The second inauguration of Richard Nixon included a flurry of trumpets fit for any Technicolor “days of old when knights were bold” medieval popcorn-cruncher at the local movie house. And Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan were more than First Ladies: they were a kind of queen. American style. So to scream at a POTUS “Fuck you!” is just basically not done in the US. You may think it, feel it, but say it?
When some lawmaker yelled out “You lie!” to President Obama when he was making a State of the Union address, the nation had entered a new space. The address is always greeted in silence and sometimes with applause.
In the public arena curated by Trump, along with a bit of the atmosphere he made in his role of chief destroyer of dreams in the series created for him: The Apprentice, we have citizens cursing the commander in chief. In public.
Which leads us to the story of “Dark Brandon”, which may be an indicator of the national mood, and why Biden’s in-the-toilet approval ratings are inching up.
On days that end in “y”, you can find Republicans attacking Biden for (take your pick): his age and assumed senility (Joe has reminded the press: “I ain’t dead and I ain’t gonna die”!); presiding over a political party filled with young, restless progressives; “Build Back Better”, a programme, to the GOP, akin to the sack of Rome; the fact that the First Lady, a Phd, calls herself “Dr”.
(So what do you call MLK? )
Joe beat Trump and “beat him bad” according to that lily-livered liberal, Dick Cheney. So the MAGA Republicans have broken the respect barrier and started chanting: “Fuck you, Joe Biden!”
Legend has it that last winter, a tv commentator “misheard” a crowd at a Nascar race chanting: “Let’s Go, Brandon” at a driver, when what they were actually doing was cursing Joe Biden. Who was not there, by the way.
“Let’s Go, Brandon” evolved on the right to far right, into an ecosystem, a universe of memes, bumper stickers, t-shirts. Even a congressman said on tv, with a smile on his face: “Let’s Go, Brandon”.
But since this rallying cry’s inception, Biden has racked up a few wins. First, a CIA drone killed Ayman al-Zawahri, leader of al-Qaida, as he stepped out on his balcony in Kabul to take the early-morning air. This hit spawned a raft of coffee mugs in the US with the saying: “Don’t bother me until I’ve had my drone”.
Second, the Senate finally passed a bill Biden calls the “Inflation Reduction Act”, the rehauled version of Build Back Better, an effort that Senator Joe Manchin (“Is he even a Democrat?” AOC once enquired) pulled over the finish line.
Third, the Chips Act, a bipartisan bill that gives US companies incentives to make semiconductors in the US. And last but not least: the unemployment rate hit a 50-year low; and the price of petrol fell. I repeat: the price of filling up the American tank reduced. It was a real big win.
The White House people who pay attention to memes hopped on the changing vibe, grabbed some ideas from MAGA Land, and invented “Dark Brandon”. Instead of a bumbling, dribbling one-foot-in-the-grave Old Joe, there he is, in his trademark aviator glasses: With A Plan All Along.
In the memetic warfare which passes for much of American campaigning now (see the Pennsylvanian Senate race that might decide which Party controls the Senate), the success of “Dark Brandon” implies that memes work.
His trademark sunglasses now become a signal that actually Joe Knows What He Is Doing. That he has abilities, power, savvy. That those fifty years in the Senate mean something. Are something.
This may not last long, but it fits right in with the very strange electoral atmosphere in the States now. At the midterm elections, the party that the president represents is wiped out in both the Senate and the House. This always happens and is expected. But this time, the Democrats may out and out win control of the Senate. Their losses in the House may not be as bad as predicted. Again, this goes against history and precedent. Plus, Joe has started shooting from the hip again, his best attack position.
Just as, when he was Obama’s vice president, he muttered to Barack: “This is a big fucking deal” right into a mic for the world to hear, so Joe is now calling, in baseball terms: “balls and strikes” – what he calls MAGA Republicans are “fascistic”; he is in office to “save the soul of America” and in response to Senator Lyndsey Graham’s warning that if Trump is indicted for violations of the Espionage Act, “there’ll be riots in the street”, Biden asks: “Where the hell are we?”
We are in the USA, 246 years old. It’s an idea right now that’s fighting for its meaning – and its very survival.