A dog whistle for the internet age

Vox explains Pepe the Frog.

Pepe the Frog has been around the internet for years. Just a year ago he was so innocuous that celebrities like Katy Perry could tweet him without fear of backlash. But more recently, Pepe has morphed into something more insidious — a symbol embraced by the white nationalist alt-right, many of whom hang out on the forums where Pepe first originated years ago.

Pepe the Frog, in other words, is a dog whistle for the internet age, when the memes candidates post circulate far more broadly than any speech they ever make. Donald Trump Jr. says he didn’t have any idea what the frog meant. But his father, more than any other presidential candidate, has embraced the ethos of the rumor swamps of the internet. The trolls who love him back, in turn, have turned Pepe the Frog into his mascot.

Trump is basically the 4chan candidate.

Like so many stories on the internet, this tale begins with 4chan, the vast, anonymous forum that first popularized Pepe and, eight years later, tied him to white nationalism.

The forum — which Vox’s Timothy Lee once described as the “Mos Eisley cantina of the internet” — spawned the hacker collective Anonymous and hosted leaked celebrity nude photos. It was one place where Gamergate activists organized. But because 4chan was a message board based around images long before communicating with images on social media was common, it’s also been the birthplace for many memes, including LOLCats, Rickrolling, and, yes, Pepe the frog.

Pepe started out in a comic about stoner dudes. For awhile Pepe was mainstreamish, so naturally people had to subvert that, because something something transgression, dude. Pepe was reclaimed.

The main effect was that it revived Pepe on 4chan — and, at times, as part of offensive images — at a time when the site was becoming a hub for Trump support and members of the alt-right.

The alt-right movement — a coalition of white supremacists and reactionaries who believe in rejecting democracy — has provided such visible support for Trump that Hillary Clinton devoted an entire speech to it.

They also hate women, you know. Don’t leave that part out – lots of people are women.

There are some intellectuals in the alt right, who write essays as opposed to posting images on message boards.

But the alt-right also includes what BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein dubbed the chanterculture,” which, he wrote, “combines age-old racist and sexist rhetoric with bleeding-edge meme culture and technology,” mixing opposition to growing racial and gender equality with irony so heavy that it can be hard to tell if they’re really serious. Milo Yiannopoulos, the right-wing provocateur and Gamergate supporter, is the most prominent member of this branch of the alt-right.

Those are the ones we’re so unpleasantly familiar with.

There was a Trump as Pepe item posted a year ago, but nobody cared.

At the time, this got almost no attention. Trump was still one of 17 contenders for the Republican nomination

Oh god…remember that? I choked up reading that sentence beginning. A year ago he was just one of the pack and nobody thought he would win. Remember that? It makes me so nostalgic I can hardly bear it.

Trump himself hasn’t addressed the Pepe controversy. His son Donald Jr. said on Good Morning America: “I’ve never even heard of Pepe the Frog. I mean, bet you 90 percent of your viewers have never heard of Pepe the Frog. … I thought it was a frog in a wig. I thought it was funny.”

But the “Deplorables” meme wasn’t the only time recently that Donald Trump Jr. has seemed to nod to white supremacists. He referenced warming up the gas chamber in a recent interview (later saying he was talking about “corporal punishment”), he retweeted a white supremacist, and he appeared on a radio show with a white supremacist who has praised slavery. His tweet comparing Syrian refugees to Skittles was widely criticized but backed by the campaign.

This pattern suggests that at the very least, Trump is being influenced by people who understand exactly what a Pepe meme symbolizes now.

There’s a case to be made that thinking this deeply about Pepe memes plays directly into the trolls’ hands: What trolls, whether Gamergaters, Trump supporters, or both, want is to get a rise out of the audience, and to get attention. With Pepe, they’ve likely succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, even if they represent a tiny fraction of the electorate — and even if they’re in it to troll, not to vote.

Truth. They love being noticed. They’re goons who post images on message boards all day, so naturally they’re thrilled to be noticed.

[W]hile internet trolls have always existed, they’re usually something an ordinary campaign would desperately avoid. The Trump campaign, on the other hand, doesn’t care whom it’s empowering. The only reason most of us are even aware of an obscure political meme from 4chan is that Trump promoted it in the first place, way back in October.

This was a choice. It’s not as if Trump is the only cultural figure the alt-righters of 4chan have claimed as their own. They’re also very fond of Taylor Swift, whom they see as their “Aryan goddess.” But Swift’s reputation has not suffered, because she doesn’t retweet praise from white supremacists. The reason Trump’s campaign has become associated with racists, xenophobes, and the alt-right is that he’s stood by and let it happen.

Because he’s a bad man.

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