The Ku Klux Klan’s burning cross, the Nazi Swastika, and now Pepe the cartoon frog—as of now all are, according to the prominent civil rights agency, the Anti Defamation League, symbols of hate. The strange demise of this internet meme, while difficult to comprehend, is a testament to the disturbingly swift rise of the alt-right movement and to the absurdity of the current presidential race. In particular, Pepe’s capitulation to the dark side highlights some home truths about the alt-right’s racist appropriation of internet humour in the form of memes.
The alt-right’s sudden emergence onto the political scene in mid-2016 is only now starting to be fully understood. What started as an obscure group of white nationalists and self-proclaimed “anti-feminazis” who lurked among the nastier fringes of anonymous internet fora (specifically 4chan and 8chan) swiftly morphed into a loosely-grouped, internet-based movement with real influence on the American political scene, fighting what it saw as the incoming tide of “cuckservatism” (traditional republicanism), “feminazism” (feminism), “SJWs” (social justice warriors) and, of course, “Crooked Hillary”. The catalyst? Donald Trump’s candidacy. Although not a self-proclaimed alt-righter himself, Trump’s flirtation with authoritarianism, xenophobia and misogyny has made him an pseudo-idol in the eyes of many of the alt-right.
In many aspects then the alt-right movement is merely another example of the populist farright backlash to progressive liberalism and establishment politics in the 21st century seen all across Europe and beyond. America, of course, has its own flourishing tradition of far-right lunacy (consider the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthyism, and the John Birch Society, to name but a few). Why, then, has the alt-right gained traction in the mainstream political sphere whilst other far-right groups have seen their popularity fall, and how has it managed to attract such a young membership base? The unlikely answer to these questions lies in its use and abuse of internet memes.
Why memes? The alt-right is almost wholly an online phenomenon; you cannot join your local alt-right society, vote for an alt-right candidate as your president or attend an alt- right national convention. It eschews both traditional print media and the established political parties in favour of quick to create, easy to propagate internet content with a focus on deriding establishment politicians and lionising their own members (notably Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos).
Paradoxically, memes, recognisable bites of pseudo-humour, offer the alt-right’s toxic dogmata a thin veneer of credibility through what one might call the sanctity of humour. By this I mean the widespread belief that all humour, no matter how offensive, should be inherently safe from moral judgement. It is the exploitation of this flawed, yet amazingly widespread, credo which has led to the terrifying legitimisation of the alt-right as a real force in American politics.
As a society we treat offensive jokes, regardless of their intent, with far more lenience than we treat offensive statements. Consider, for example, the last time you heard a racist joke. Maybe you laughed; maybe you didn’t. Maybe you were shocked; maybe you weren’t. However, compare this with the last time you heard somebody make a racist statement. First, the odds are that you’ve heard far more racist jokes than straightfaced racist statements. Now, consider what your reaction was the last time you heard someone seriously espouse racist doctrine. You probably did not laugh, or even willingly keep the conversation going.
The alt-right understand that it is easier for us to shut our ears to people who make racist statements, but that many of us, perhaps grudgingly, perhaps willingly, allow racist sentiments to linger in our conversations and online, principally in the form of jokes. Since the alt-right recognised this tendency, it seems they have gone about clothing their racist, misogynist, and nationalist ideologies in the thin coating of “meme humour”, in the hope we might unwittingly allow their Trojan horse of toxic doctrines onto the mainstream political landscape.
Pepe the Frog’s shocking racist transformation is but one example of this disturbing trend. Designed and released in 2005 by the graphic designer Matt Furie as a completely benevolent cartoon character, Pepe the Frog gained immediate notoriety. As time passed, Pepe became an in-joke among edgier sections of the online community, and it wasn’t long until people worked out how to personalise and edit Pepe. Pepe-editing became an unlikely craze and various redesigns saw the unfortunate frog sporting Chelsea kit, lingerie, and a magical robe (though thankfully not all at once). This, then, is exactly the kind of opportunity which the alt-right seizes upon; a distinctive, but easily distorted, piece of internet humour, which, when abused, could easily be passed off as “just some tasteless humour” or “a dark joke”.
Before long, Pepe was making the rounds on seedy fringes of the internet, sporting the altright’s garments of choice: a Swastika jumper, a Yarmulke, and a white hood and not long after that, the alt-right adopted Pepe as their unofficial symbol.
Our unwillingness to condemn offensive humour has had far-reaching negative effects in American politics; is there anything we can do to repair the situation, or are the alt-right here to stay? There seems no ready and simple strategy to combat such a diffuse and uncoordinated opponent. We would do well, though, to remind ourselves that many offensive jokes, especially on the internet, are nothing but aggressive intentions dressed, barely, in sheep’s clothing. On the same front, we ought to resist the easy and populist move to deride political correctness; both Trump and the alt-right have been vocal in their abuse of “PC culture”. To tolerate the alt-right’s retaliation against political correctness would be to disarm ourselves at a vital moment: just when we must resist their barely-veiled attempts to propagate racist and misogynist dogma.
If Donald Trump and his alt-right fan-base are vindicated this November, life for minorities, not just in America, but worldwide. Many will feel helpless to resist this. Yet, the war of ideas, fought online, is one we are all involved in.