Across the country, triggered by rapid cultural, technological, demographic and economic change, Americans have lost faith in the democratic system and are increasingly greeting each other, and screaming at public events and at strangers on the street, “Let’s Go, Brandon,” their folkloric way of making a crude remark about Joe Biden without actually swearing. [See sidebar.] I went to some of the diners my colleagues visited after the 2016 election to connect with these disaffected citizens and ask what magic the incantation held for them.
Milt Freen, 49, an electrical contractor whose entire neo-colonial mansion in Freehold, N.J. is wrapped in Trump flags, met me at the Bada-Bing Grill to explain the origin and the punchline of the joke, which he did several times, finally indignantly asking why I wasn’t laughing. When I explained, as apologetically as I could, that I understood the joke but did not find it funny, Mr. Freen accused me of hypocrisy, claiming that “you media types use curse words for Trump all the time,” and repeated several of these curse words for me, some of which I had never heard in my life.
I told Mr. Freen I had never made such comments about the former President myself and invited him to check my Times archive and social media feeds. He grew red in the face and pounded the table till the silverware rattled: “Oh, so now you’re giving me homework,” he said, “like that goddamn bitch of an English teacher Lucy Baker used to. I made a million two last year and that’s not counting the PPP payments. Education is for losers, it’s all about how black people are better than white people anyway.”
Mr. Freen then faked a punch at me before leaving the diner and driving away in his truck, which was painted over with #FJB hashtags and which towed his boat, The Fuck Brandon.
In Bugtussle, Okla., Tess McClintock apologized for the coffee at the Lunch Shack, thinking I wouldn’t like it because “it’s not foreign and fancy like maybe you’re used to.” I told her it was delicious; she told me the waitress had probably spit in it before serving it to me. “That’s just a joke, like Let’s Go Brandon,” Ms. McClintock said, cackling. “Or is it? We don’t like reporters around here.” The Bugtussle Bugle, the town’s last paper, had shuttered in 2008, after an incident in which 17-term mayor Lyndon Gushwater, coming upon the Bugle’s editor-in-chief strolling on Albert Road, floored his Dodge Ram and ran the editor into a ditch.
Ms. McClintock told me that at the local Assembly of God church congregants worked Let’s Go Brandon into their hymns and even uttered it when speaking in tongues. “We feel so strongly about it because there is an obvious prejudice on the part of Eastern elites against people from the heartland who believe in God, the right to bear arms, and personal autonomy when it comes to vaccine mandates,” she said, reading off an index card.
Charles Klimchick, a dealer in antique stereo equipment, podcaster, and self-described “truth-teller,” treated me to his impersonations of various political figures — including Nancy Pelosi, whom he represented by grinning broadly and saying in a cracked falsetto, “I’m a big ugly whore and my p***y really smells” — as we waited for our breakfast at Kolache Heaven in Gump, Tex. I asked him what, in the evanescent world of humor, gave Let’s Go Brandon its staying power.
“You sound like a f****t,” Mr. Klimchick said. “That’s actually a line from the movie Idiocracy,” he quickly added. “So I’m not really using the word, I’m just quoting it, so you can’t say I’m being homophobic or else you’re the real homophobe. Plus you’re not even a guy, as least not that I can tell.” He laughed loudly, then made a disgusted face. “Why are you liberals so thin-skinned?” he said.
I assured Mr. Klimchick I was not offended. “You better not be,” he rejoined with a sly grin, “because you’ve said Let’s Go Brandon three or four times, and it means F**k Joe Biden so you’ve been swearing which I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to do because it’s politically incorrect. Besides, what would your liberal bosses say if I told them you said F**k Joe Biden?” He called out to the few other, indifferent diners at Kolache Heaven, “Hey, this liberal lady said F**k Joe Biden.”
When I told Mr. Klimchick I had understood his jokes but still needed a direct answer to my question, he repeated my words back to me in a dumb-sounding voice, then grabbed my hand and pushed it several times against my opposite shoulder, crying, “Why’re you hitting yourself? Why’re you hitting yourself?” As I left he repeated the famous line from A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth,” and impersonated flatulence.
While to some readers these responses may seem irrelevant and even incoherent, social psychologist Dr. Ellen Padwallada from the Bothsides Institute in Washington, D.C. cautions, “It is presumptuous of us to expect these uniquely alienated and aggrieved people to communicate with us the same way we communicate with one another — that is, in complete sentences and with logical arguments. We must understand that their notion of humor and causality both derive from their hatred of, well, of you and everyone like you, and we must respect that hatred even if we can see no reason for it, because at the Bothsides Institute we believe what sounds like gibberish is actually a sort of conservative patois that we simply haven’t learned to interpret but may begin to understand after a few more rounds of abuse.”