Members Only | November 3, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

‘Let’s go, Brandon’ tells us violence isn’t the result of MAGA politics. It is MAGA politics

The GOP's cutesy catchphrase.

Southwest

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Republicans are snickering like third graders over a new catchphrase, “Let’s Go Brandon!” Due to a miscommunication too banal to relate, but involving NASCAR, the phrase has become a cutesy euphemism for “Fuck Joe Biden!” Ted Cruz posed with it, Mitch McConnell’s spokesman retweeted it and gunsmiths are etching it on their wares. 

It was all harmless cringe until the pilot of a Southwest Airlines flight from Houston to Albuquerque signed off with “Remember: Let’s Go Brandon,” eliciting audible gasps from some passengers. 

The phrase itself is goofy, but it’s totally unacceptable for a pilot of a major airline to repeat MAGA catchphrases from the cockpit during an epidemic of right-wing air rage. That’s nothing less than a wink and a nod to the anti-mask MAGA violence that has gripped the industry.


The phrase itself is goofy, but it’s totally unacceptable for a pilot of a major airline to repeat MAGA catchphrases from the cockpit during an epidemic of right-wing air rage. 


According to the latest data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency has received over 5,000 reports of unruly passengers in 2021, of which 3,600 involved disputes over masks. If current trends continue, air rage incidents in 2021 will outnumber all previous years combined. In an attempt to get through to the public, the FAA put out a PSA featuring real audio of flight crews wrangling violent passengers, showing how unruly passengers endanger everyone on board.  

In May, a passenger knocked out a Southwest flight attendant’s teeth in a masking dispute, which was just one of 477 cases of passenger misconduct on Southwest Airlines in a little over a month.

The official statistics may not reflect the full scope of the problem. Eighty-five percent of flight attendants said they encountered unruly passengers during the first half of 2021 — and 85 percent of unruly incidents were related to masks, according to a survey of 5,000 members of the Association of Flight Attendants. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they have had at least five incidents, and 17 percent said they have endured physical violence from passengers.

“Many respondents recounted aggressive incidents, including shoving, kicking seats, throwing trash at flight crew, defiling the restroom in response to crewmember instructions, and following flight crew through the airport to continue yelling and harassment,” Sarah Nelson, the union’s international president, testified before Congress. 

The larger context is that Biden’s vaccine mandate has turned Southwest Airlines into a flashpoint for pandemic culture war. In October, Southwest employees chanted “Let’s Go Brandon” at a protest against the requirement that they get vaccinated. 

Tempers are running so high at Southwest that the pilots’ union sent its members a memo warning them not to let vaccine debates become in-flight distractions. “We are seeing distractions in the flight deck that can create dangerous situations,” union spokesman Dennis Tajer said. Recently, a Southwest pilot was even cited for assault and battery against a flight attendant during an off-duty dispute over masks. 


The fact that the phrase is coded arguably makes it even more powerful. By defiantly speaking MAGA jargon, the pilot is winking and nodding at right-wing disorder.


A dissident faction of Southwest pilots has been fighting the vaccine mandate in court and Republican leaders have hailed them as “freedom fighters” in the battle against Biden’s immunological tyranny. Even before L’Affaire Brandon, TikTok was full of right wingers proclaiming their solidarity with the vaccine-resistant pilots.

Of course, it’s against Southwest’s policy for pilots to air divisive or offensive views in flight. So here we have authority figure flouting that rule to say “fuck the president,” which sends a message that rule-breaking, particularly MAGA rule-breaking, is tolerated. 

The fact that the phrase is coded arguably makes it even more powerful. By defiantly speaking MAGA jargon, the pilot is winking and nodding at right-wing disorder. Put another way, the coded language tells us violence isn’t a result of MAGA politics. It is MAGA politics.

Attacks on flight attendants are part of a much larger pattern of violence against service workers, health care workers, and teachers by people who refuse to comply with pandemic regulations. 

This is paradigmatically political violence. 

People who don’t agree with the law are resisting it by force. 

There’s literature on how authority figures signal that violence is acceptable without explicitly calling for it. It’s often in the form of coded language, jokes and asides to communicate that the people in charge approve of violence and will take care of those who use it. 

It’s irrelevant whether the pilot intended to encourage stewardess-punching with his little dig. If he didn’t anticipate the consequences, that’s just as bad. His job is to think ahead. 

If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that you get more of what you tolerate. A pilot should not be winking at rebellion and Southwest should not tolerate a pilot deliberately riling up passengers in-flight. It would be foolish to fire the pilot, because that would just make him into a crowdfunded martyr. But he should face consequences. 


Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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