BOISE, Idaho — On a quiet street south of downtown Boise, Michael Dick has festooned his front yard with homemade signs, including a large yellow placard that facetiously thanks President Joe Biden for a growing list of grievances — $4-a-gallon gas, inflation, Afghanistan, COVID-19. In capital letters in black marker, Dick, 59, recently added “dead civilians” and “dead U.S. soldiers” to his bill of particulars.
In another part of town, alongside a “No trespassing” sign, Michael Schwarz, 60, used black spray-paint to scrawl “Joe Blows” across an electric-pink poster board.
And that’s mild compared to the sentiments some people — largely in conservative areas — are expressing in their front yards and on the signs they lug with them to greet Biden as he travels the country.
On Wednesday, when the president visited Scranton, Pennsylvania, he was greeted at the corner of Biden Street by a woman holding a handmade “(expletive) Joe Biden” sign, with an American flag as the vowel in the offending word. And back in Boise, Rod Johnson, a retired gunsmith, has hung a blue flag from the roof of his home that reads “(expletive) Biden.” Underneath, in smaller letters, he added, “And (expletive) you for voting for him!!”
“I’m not the only Republican that doesn’t like Biden,” Johnson, 68, said in an interview, sporting a red “Proud White American” hat and puffing a skinny cigar. “I just chose to show it.”
During the 2020 presidential campaign, one of Biden’s political superpowers was his sheer inoffensiveness, the way he often managed to embody — even to those who didn’t like him — the innocuous grandfather, the bumbling uncle, the leader who could make America calm, steady, even boring again after four years of Donald Trump.
But it’s clear that after nine months in office, Biden — or at least what he represents — is increasingly becoming an object of hatred to many Trump supporters. The vitriol partly reflects Trump’s own repeated baseless claims that Biden is a usurper, depriving him of his rightful claim to the presidency, and partly stems from Biden actions that Republicans deplore, from his spending plans to his immigration policies.
Yet the anger also demonstrates how a political party or cause often needs an enemy, a target of vilification that can unite its adherents — and, in this case, one refracted through the harshness, norm-breaking and vulgarity of the Trump era.
Boos, jeers and insults are nothing new for politicians, especially those who reach the White House. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Trump, were all heckled, weathering protests along their motorcade routes and at some of their events. At one 2011 fundraiser in Los Angeles, a heckler called Obama the Antichrist; “(expletive) Trump” graffiti adorned some walls in Washington, D.C.
The current eruption of anti-Biden signs and chants, however, is on another level, far more vulgar and widespread.
The ubiquity of Trump signs, especially in rural stretches of the country, has long been striking, and possibly unprecedented for a losing candidate — especially nearly a year after the election. But now, in towns like Boise — in states both red and blue, and almost all across the country — anti-Biden signs are cropping up as well, frequently with angry and profane insults.
Some of are scrawled by hand. Others are bought on Amazon. Still others are professionally procured. The crude signs are held by people lined up along Biden’s motorcade routes and clustered near his events. Protesters shout obscenities from outside his appearances.
Then there are the chants. In early Oct., a “(expletive) Joe Biden!” cry broke out among the crowd at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway. Kelli Stavast, an NBC Sports reporter, was interviewing NASCAR driver Brandon Brown live on air at the time, and she quipped, “You can hear the chants from the crowd, ‘Let’s go Brandon!'”
Trump supporters instantly saw signs of a cover up, saying on social media that journalists were deliberately censoring anti-Biden sentiment. The brief video exchange quickly turned viral.
The result has been a proliferation of chants in recent weeks, both of “Let’s go Brandon!” — now used as a stand-in by the Trump faithful — and the more vulgar original, sometimes short-handed as “FJB.”
Trump’s Save America PAC has even begun selling a $45 T-shirt featuring Biden’s black-and-white visage above the phrase “Let’s go Brandon.” And the PAC sent a message to supporters that read, “#FJB or LET’S GO BRANDON? Either way, President Trump wants YOU to have our ICONIC new shirt.”
The former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has repeatedly promoted the meme, and the original chant, on his social media feeds. At a speech in Georgia, he took the stage after the crowd had been chanting “USA! USA!” and roared, “There’s a couple other chants I’ve been hearing going around. Have you heard the other one that’s been going around?” The crowd took the cue and broke into cries of “Let’s go Brandon.”
The vitriol has even entered the House chamber. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., wrapped up a floor speech this week with the signoff, “Let’s go Brandon.” Then, in a jarring return to House decorum, he concluded, “I yield back.”
When Trump was in office, he deployed public profanity in a way unlike any other modern president, which his supporters saw as truth-telling and his opponents as vulgarity and sometimes racism. He railed against immigrants from “(expletive) countries.” He tweeted that Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was a “pompous ass.” He was elected after boasting of grabbing women’s crotches.
Sometimes he prompted obscenities from Democrats in return.
“One of the many legacies of the Trump presidency is he normalized angry speech,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist and Trump critic. “Trump and our culture in general has beaten decorum out of politics, so now it’s just angry rage therapy — so you get out your Magic Marker and you do your coarse lawn sign.”
Murphy, whose Twitter bio describes him as “Infuriated GOP Strategist,” added, “When Trump acts like a savage, it makes other people think it’s OK to act like a savage. … We’re so tribal, everybody now is an angry Democrat or an angry Republican.”
That tribalism is reflected in surveys. A 2020 AEI poll found that 64% of Democrats see the Republican Party as so misguided that it poses a serious threat to the country, while 75% of Republicans say the same thing about the Democratic Party.
Schwarz — the Idahoan with the spray-painted sign — said he was motivated in part by his anger that the 2020 election was stolen, an assertion Trump has repeatedly promoted despite its falsity. “I don’t see how he won without doing fraudulent things to the voting machines,” Schwarz said of Biden. “How the hell did he get a landslide?”
Now that Biden has been in office for nearly a year, Schwarz said he has lost faith in his ability to handle foreign policy, as well as such domestic issues as immigration and the current labor shortfall.
“A lot of people don’t want to work,” Schwarz said. “They’re waiting for the government to hand out another check.”
For Johnson — who immediately asked his son to help him find his own anti-Biden flag online after he saw one waving from the back of a truck — immigration is also a motivating issue. He said he wants to see Biden clamp down on the number of people crossing the border, adding, “Where the hell are we going to put the people who are already here?”
But the signs often appear to be as much a manifestation of the general rage against the system that helped fuel Trump’s ascent as a specific indictment of the current president.
“The psychological dynamic that led to the rise of Trump is happening again — this sense that you’re losing your country and it’s being led by an individual without the cognitive capacity to run a fast-food joint,” said Cliff Sims, who served in a senior role in the Trump administration. “The anger is less about Joe Biden individually and more about the state of the country that he is presiding over. He’s an avatar — he’s like the symbol of the decline of America.”
Administration officials sought to downplay the phenomenon, and at least one claimed to be unfamiliar with the “Let’s go Brandon” chant or its cruder cousin, though they are now chanted everywhere from football stadiums to concert arenas to local bars.
“I had never heard of that chant until you explained it to me,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. Referring to an anonymous message board known for promoting online extremism, he added, “I guess I’m not spending enough time on 8chan or whatever.”
The signs have followed Biden nearly everywhere, held aloft by protesters. The president addressed them obliquely when he visited Howell, Michigan, earlier this month.
“They said it was time to build an economy that looks out from Scranton, Pennsylvania — where I grew up as a kid — instead of looking down from Wall Street,” Biden said in his speech that day, then quickly added, “notwithstanding some of the signs that I saw — that’s why 81 million Americans voted for me, the largest number of votes in American history.”
In an interview after that speech, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a centrist who represents the area, said the protesters in her district are clearly energized. While she supports freedom of speech, she added, she found the use of crude language distasteful.
“What I think was really disappointing was the profanity and the sort of really over-the-top, heinous things that people wrote on signs, just blocks from a school,” Slotkin said. “And I think it reflects that there is a strain in the country right now of people who are angry and they’ve sort of lost their decency and civility.”
Less than two weeks later, during a visit to a child development center in Hartford, Connecticut, Biden again found himself dogged by signs sporting the four-letter anti-Biden slogan.
“Just heartbreaking for kids to see how crude and uncivil some of our discourse has become,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
And as Virginia gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin campaigned in Culpeper last week, the crowd several times attempted to start a “Let’s go Brandon!” chant. After Youngkin jokingly referred to Biden as the “uncle” of his opponent, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, one attendee called out, “Brandon! Let’s go Brandon!”
Hours later, at a Richmond-area rally organized by conservative radio talk show host and former Trump state campaign chair John Fredericks, multiple speakers led the crowd of a few hundred in the chant.
Among them was Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, a candidate for Arizona secretary of state who has been endorsed by Trump. Finchem knew how to elicit loud cheers after a 10-minute speech about his campaign to overturn Biden’s win in his state, urging, “So with that, I’d like to have a one round — if you don’t mind it, just humor me — of ‘Let’s go Brandon!'”
Some who have erected anti-Biden signs, especially vulgar ones, have found themselves in conflict with local officials, including one woman in New Jersey who was asked to take down several banners because they violated a local anti-obscenity ordinance. She has said she plans to fight a judge’s order in court.
That hasn’t deterred Trump supporters. As reporters left a Biden event in Elk Grove, Illinois, earlier this month, an anti-Biden protester could be heard speaking over a loudspeaker nearby, booming, “We’re all waving at you to let you know how much you suck.”
Carissa Wolf reported from Boise. The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan, Matt Viser and Dave Weigel contributed to this report.