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Dispatch from the Republican Meme Wars

Let’s Go Brandon, In-N-Out, and the Conservative Expanded Universe.
by Jim Swift
October 21, 2021
Dispatch from the Republican Meme Wars
Fans cheer after Brandon Brown, driver of the #68 The Original Larry's Hard Lemonade Chevrolet, wins the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sparks 300 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 02, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Republicans continue to morph into an Extremely Online party where much of their communication only makes sense if you are steeped in meme culture and the Conservative Expanded Universe. The most interesting meme is the party’s adoption of the slogan “Let’s Go Brandon.”

Two weeks ago NASCAR driver Brandon Brown won the race at Talladega. After the race, he was being interviewed by reporter Kelli Stavast and the crowd began chanting “Fuck Joe Biden.” Which is a perfectly normal thing for non-political sporting event in 2021 America.

In any event, Ms. Stavast supposed the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go Brandon when they obviously were not. Thus was born a Republican meme.

The “Let’s Go Brandon” meme has become a popular catchphrase used not just on Gab or MAGA merch, but by Republicans in Congress. And not just the ones you’d expect,  such as Lauren Boebert, but even “mainstream” Republicans such as Chip Roy and Ted Cruz

They all know what it means. 

The chant has also become tied to the Biden administration’s proposed vaccine mandate—it popped up at Southwest Airlines’s Dallas headquarters after the company announced it would mandate vaccination for all employees. This stance put the company further out on mandates than the Biden administration was willing to go; Southwest eventually relented and will allow non-vaccinated employees to work if they have an approved or pending religious or medical exemption and wear a mask and social distance while on the job. It is unclear if there will be a testing regimen, since Southwest is also a federal contractor. Which seems to satisfy most of the people involved—even though this policy is not far removed from the one that Biden’s not-yet-enacted federal mandate would require. And yet, somehow, “Let’s Go Brandon” was deemed an appropriate response.

“Let’s Go Brandon” has become such a viral koan that a rap song based on it shot up the iTunes charts as conservatives hyped it into the right-wing bloodstream. Like with Kyrie Irving and sports stars making political statements, rap music seems to be currently acquiring strange new respect.

And now we have a new entrant in the meme wars: In-N-Out burger, a beloved west coast burger chain known for its secret menu. 

At its sole location in San Francisco, the local government shut down In-N-Out because the store would not comply with the city’s vaccine passport mandate. The company responded: 

“We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government,” Arnie Wensinger, the company’s chief legal and business officer, said in a statement shared with The Washington Post. “It is unreasonable, invasive, and unsafe to force our restaurant Associates to segregate Customers into those who may be served and those who may not, whether based on the documentation they carry, or any other reason.”

The chain received glowing praise from Fox News, and an outpouring of support from conservative activists on social media, including one, who want to support companies that “support human rights.” 

Will In-N-Out become the next conservative darling of fast food, a la Chick-fil-A?  Probably not. You may recall that Chick-fil-A was briefly a badge of conservative virtue signaling—like Freedom Fries—though that ended in 2019 when the company cut ties with Christian groups and opted out of the culture war. (Chick-fil-A’s bottom line seems to have neither benefited during its Favored Dining status nor been hurt by conservatives turning away from it after it said, “No thanks.”)

In-N-Out is regional, with fewer than 400 locations. And while it is California-based, the other locations are in southwestern states—and most localities don’t currently have COVID protocols as aggressive as San Francisco’s.  

Besides which: The company has already sort of caved. While the In-N-Out spokesman told the Post that the chain is committed to the “highest form of customer service,” and wants unvaccinated people to be able to eat indoors at their restaurant, they have opted to reopen the San Francisco location, but with a closed dining room.

Which is the kind of response that a normal business trying to get along in a once-in-a-century pandemic would have. It is not ideal to have only take-out and drive-through dining. It is also not ideal to have 1,500 Americans dying of a communicable disease every day.

Everyone has to give a little. And most people—maybe not most people on Twitter, but most people nonetheless—understand this.

Correction [10/21/21 10:06 AM]: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Southwest will require unvaccinated employees to submit to COVID-19 testing. It is unclear whether that is the case.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.