In a development that is no doubt utterly inexplicable to many, Donald Trump has gotten himself in trouble for associating with an amphibian: an internet meme known as Pepe the Frog.
Pepe isn’t the only frog to “blow up” on the internet in 2016. But he’s undoubtedly the most infamous. After Hillary Clinton referred to “half” of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables,” Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., retweeted a photoshopped spoof of The Expendables’ movie poster, with the faces of Sylvester Stallone et al. replaced by Republicans and right-wing pundits, and the title “The Deplorables.” Trump is centre stage as Stallone, of course, alongside figures like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos. Standing at Trump’s left shoulder is a weird-looking frog in a blonde wig. That’s Pepe.
This image set off a frenzy. Back in May, The Daily Beast claimed that the Pepe the Frog meme had become a symbol of the neo-fascist “Alt-Right” movement. Vanity Fair and The Atlantic picked up on the link between Trump Jr’s post and the Alt-Right. Journalists dug out an image, depicting Trump as Pepe — or Pepe as Trump, it’s unclear which — that Trump had retweeted in October 2015. The official Hillary Clinton campaign site even posted an explainer making the link between Pepe, Trump, and online white supremacist culture.
There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether Pepe really is a symbol of the Alt-Right, or whether Trump and Trump Jr’s retweets constitute endorsements — that is, whether the association between “The Donald” and Pepe is damning or not. But there is another question worth asking: what does Pepe have to tell us about how memes make culture?
Feels good man: Know Your Meme entry on this particular Pepe meme
Pepe was created by Matt Furie in 2005, as a character in a stoner-humor, “frat bro” comic called Boy’s Club [sic]. According to the website Know Your Meme, around 2008 a pane from this comic was turned into a meme. In the strip, Pepe has just been asked by one of his buddies why he pulls his pants all the way down to urinate. His droll response: “feels good man.”
Early Pepe was what is known as a “reaction image,” used to respond to posts on forums and social media. The iteration was harmless: the reference was somewhat gross, but it was just an obscure internet in-joke.
By 2014, the meme had become much more widespread. Pepe had spawned a Tumblr, a Subreddit and a now-defunct Instagram account. But the obscene, in-joke internet subculture that had spawned the original meme didn’t appreciate that it had become so mainstream, being co-opted by celebrities like Katie Perry and Nicki Minaj. So they tried to make Pepe theirs again.
SOMEDAY MY PRINCE
Rare pepes: Know Your Meme entry on the rare Pepes phenomenon
In particular, users of the message board 4chan (an infamous site that has been referred to as “the toilet of the internet,” and one of the wellsprings of online meme culture) began trading “rare” (non-mainstream) Pepe memes (referred to simply as “Pepes”) on online forums as though they were commodities. This “trade” culminated in an inevitable “crash,” as the frog meme “market” was flooded with digital files.
Reporting on the bizarre phenomenon of the “Pepe-economy” just as it was collapsing in April 2015, Roisin Kiberd noted:
Intriguingly, Pepe has a frog’s face but a humanoid body, hinting that one day, with the right partner, he could transform into a prince.
This spring, that prince turned out to be Donald Trump.
Part of the reason for Trump’s association with Pepe has to do with the other strategy used to reclaim the meme from the mainstream. Pepe enthusiasts had started a campaign to make him as despicable as possible, in the hope that “normies” would be deterred from using the image. This is where Pepe began to merge with online culture’s horrible fringe, the Alt-Right. The latter is a motley bunch of internet trolls who promulgate a heady brew of extreme racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia. Sometime in late 2015, the Pepe meme became one of the emblems of “Chanterculture,” a grim, right-wing reactionary movement whose tributaries include Gamergate (an online controversy that saw violent threats issued against female video game developers and critics) far-right anti-establishment politics, populist politics – and a particularly virulent brand of Trumpism.
Trump is undoubtedly one of this movement’s chosen avatars. He often appears in their memes, as himself or as the strange Trump-Pepe hybrid. Whether Trump’s association with the Alt-Right is fair is debatable, but it may even be beside the point: either way, many of his past actions and present policies are damning. What’s interesting is how entities like the Alt-Right use memes to promulgate a new brand of hyper-media-driven politics.
Build it: Reddit thread
Some commentators have noted how the Clinton campaign’s post about Pepe has actually played in to the trolls’ hands. More and more people have joined in to make more and more offensive Pepe memes. Mainstream media attention has arguably encouraged the production of horrible content. To understand why, we have to talk about a practice known as “shitposting.”
A shitpost is a post on a forum or social media that is explicitly designed to derail a conversation and to aggravate people — hence the internet adage, “don’t feed the trolls.” Shitposting is also at the heart of meme-based culture. When a troll first shitposts on a thread, their antagonist doesn’t yet exist. Shitposting horrible Pepe memes is an act that wills an opponent into being — an opponent, that is, who will validate the offensive status of the meme.
This is why it’s hard to tease out the causality of shitposts — and of memes. Trump-Pepe is a chicken-and-egg kind of question. The Pepe meme is meant to be offensive and antagonistic. But it is also projective. Its aim is to conjure an opponent who not only gets offended by the content of the post, but who also doesn’t understand that the joke is, in fact, that they got angry.
The Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, a group of theorists and philosophers interested in the relationship between technology, science fiction, theory and culture, calls this dynamic “hyperstition.” A hyperstition is a fictional idea that’s put in to circulation and, by feeding back into itself, brings about its own reality. The Alt-Right Pepe is a shitpost on American politics that has conjured the Alt-Right out of the recesses of the internet and squarely into mainstream media conversations.
The joke is supposed to be on anyone who might be offended — which, to be clear, should be everyone. To paraphrase Wyndham Lewis, this is a joke that’s become too deep for laughter. But as the adage teaches us, there’s no tackling trolls head-on. What we can do is try to understand a little more about their tactics.
Pepe/Calvin: Matt Furie’s personal Tumblr
A particular meme’s meaning is ambiguous, because memes are, by nature, always metamorphosing. Like the viral image, the meme circulates. But what sets the meme apart from the viral image is its capacity to be varied, modified and reinvented. Memes only ever exist in circulation, as they continue to be shared and remade. But because of this, memes can also turn on a dime and become something else overnight.
A few weeks ago, Furie, Pepe’s creator, posted a mash up of the famous “Calvin Peeing” meme, Pepe, and Pepe-Trump (above). Whilst it’s heartening to see him denouncing the appropriation of Pepe by the Alt-Right, it’s also futile. He might have made Pepe, but Pepe is no longer his. Because of this mutability, it’s hard to pin down the content of the Pepe meme, or what it symbolises. Likewise it is hard to decide what it means for Trump to retweet a Pepe meme.
The shitposter’s mode of choice is, of course, irony. Irony distances the practitioner from what they produce, which frees them from accountability: hence the troll’s goading response, “that’s not what I meant.” In Pepe memes, the distinction between ironic racism and just-plain-racism gets blurred by the baiting, shitposting procedure. Ironic memetic practices aren’t about making content cruel per se; they’re about increasing circulation.
But in the aggregate, they do something else. They make hate real.
Pepe pipe: Know Your Meme entry on this particular meme
Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Trump-Pepe fracas is the way that the Pepe meme was construed as the symbol — the face — of the Alt-Right movement. Because the whole game of shitposting Pepe is about putting negative affect into circulation, it’s a phenomenon that’s just not compatible with how mainstream media knows the world and how they cover it. Far from challenging the alleged Alt-Right meme by exposing it to light, the media’s association of the Pepe meme with the Alt-Right has simply reaffirmed and accelerated the shitposter’s trick of conjuring something — confusion, hatred, frustration — into being.
 Curiously, Nick Land, the key figure in the CCRU, has since become a leading intellectual influence on the Alt-Right.