If you are unaware of an alt-right movement, don't be embarrassed. Most Americans don't spend hours a day haunting online message boards like subreddits or 4chan, dens of subversive humor and just plain subversion, where good old-fashioned haters of various kinds find common cause. They may be nasty but they reside in the shadows. So, imagine their mirth at suddenly being treated like a legitimate movement by the outside world – they call us the normies - and especially our fascination with their unlikely meme, a cartoon by the name of Pepe the Frog.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: I just learned it today, Pepe the frog is apparently some icon you put in your pictures to show solidarity with the alt-right.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Right, with white supremacy.
MILES KLEE: After the “basket of deplorables” comment was when you really started to see some of these alt-right memes go mainstream.
BOB GARFIELD: Miles Klee is an editor for The Daily Dot.
MILES KLEE: You know, Trump’s son shared one of them that included Pepe. [LAUGHS] It’s the Photoshop of the movie The Expendables, except it’s Trump and all his surrogates, and [LAUGHS] on one wing you see that Pepe actually outranks Rudy Giuliani. [LAUGHS]
You know, here somehow he’s more useful.
BOB GARFIELD: Klee is a Pepe fan from way back, well before the frog was embraced by white supremacists.
MILES KLEE: Pepe is relatively ancient in terms of internet lore. He first existed in 2005 on Myspace and then made his official debut in a comic called Boys Club where he’s one among a couple of like teenage monster type people who hang around eating pizza, playing video games, just generally chilling out. He was not ideological in the least, except for being pro-friendship and good times. His big moment in the comic that kind of turned him into a meme later on involved one of his friends walking in on him in the bathroom and he’s taken his pants all the way down to pee, and Pepe says, “Feels good, man.” So that's kind of his ethos.
It’s just sort of a do what feels good, do what comes naturally and have a good time with your friends.
BOB GARFIELD: So he's like the dude in The Big Lebowski –
- except that he's a cartoon frog.
MILES KLEE: Yeah, you could say that. There’s a sort of Zen to him, for sure.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay. But now he has been embraced, one might even say, co-opted, by the alt-right. How did that happen?
MILES KLEE: So when Pepe first became a meme, it was on 4chan. It’s a message board that’s been around for a long time, and it sort of represents the worst of the best and the best of the worst that you can find on the internet and really revels a lot of times in kind of political incorrectness. So Pepe fit basically any mold that people wanted him to. That included some very feel-good kind of wholesome stuff, but it also started to include racists, anti-Semitics, misogynists. People have been making 9/11 jokes with Pepe for years. And so, what you see in Pepe’s use by the alt-right is kind of an outgrowth of some of his more offensive incarnations.
BOB GARFIELD: So he was kind of the O negative, the universal donor –
MILES KLEE: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - of memedom. But now the blood supply’s tainted by these hateful right-wingers, which is kind of hard to explain, although [LAUGHS] Hillary Clinton’s website tried to –
MILES KLEE: [LAUGHS] Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - with the sentence, “That cartoon frog is more sinister than you might realize.”
MILES KLEE: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Which just sounds hilarious and ridiculous, and yet, I guess, is true.
MILES KLEE: I think what's funny there is, you know, taking it that seriously really just feeds back into the joke of meme culture, which is why would anyone be taking this seriously, in the first place, you know? Pepe can be an avatar for a lot of things but to suggest that he is kind of symbolic of neo-Nazi Party in America or the kind of ideology is just really hilarious on its face because he's just kind of a versatile icon that can be deployed in any possible way.
When Hillary says that Pepe the frog is [LAUGHS] dangerous or sinister, the trolls love that. I mean, you can go find a bunch of threads right now on 4chan or Reddit of people laughing themselves silly over the fact that they have forced Hillary to kind of reckon with a cartoon frog at all, when it's kind of distracting [LAUGHS] from the real issue there, right?
BOB GARFIELD: Right, so I, I can see why it, from a certain perspective, is hilarious, and it's a very subversive little joke. But let me just point out, rainbows once were just rainbows and now they’re heavily associated with LGBT culture. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s just that it is. The six-pointed star makes nobody think of a sheriff’s badge.
And the cross, which once upon a time was just a cross, for crying out loud, is the global symbol of Christianity. So I’m not sure that now that Pepe is associated with the alt-right that it can ever go back to being just the O negative meme of convenience for whatever you want to kind of goof around with. Can it?
MILES KLEE: What it feels like to me is that, you know, he’s one of these ur-memes. He doesn’t really obey a lot of rules. You know, he kind of existed in a time before virality, as we understand it. You know, he was pre-YouTube, pre-Twitter, and he’s really managed to endure. And, in fact, you could say he gains in strength the more people like us try to talk about him.
Earlier this year, we saw the “Damn Daniel” craze go completely haywire. Immediately, he went on Ellen. That meme was kind of declared dead as soon as daytime TV got ahold of it. But Pepe has always shown this uncanny ability to buck the narrative, and I fully expect he’s gonna to continue to do that.
BOB GARFIELD: [CHUCKLES] Miles, thanks a lot.
MILES KLEE: Thank you, my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Miles Klee is an editor for The Daily Dot.