In a wow-2016-really-is-crazy blog post called Donald Trump, Pepe the Frog, and White Supremacists, Hillary Clinton's website made the connection between a cartoon frog and racism. Here's a passage from that piece:
I am going to be working on the idea that you have at least some idea of what's going on here. Pepe is an ugly looking cartoon frog (sorry) that previously was a "rare" meme on 4chan and other corners of the internet. Pepe gained traction on the "normal" internet and eventually became very, very popular on r/the_donald, alt-right Twitter, and other online hangouts that generally support Donald Trump.
Trump once tweeted a Trump Pepe image, and over the weekend, Trump's son Donald Jr. and advisor Roger Stone posted the following image to their social media accounts, which was a response to Clinton's "basket of deplorables" comment about Trump actively courting a base of racist and bigoted supporters.
Clinton's post was quickly mocked on social media. Why is a potential presidential candidate even bothering to address this? Isn't this what Trump's supporters want? And how can a cartoon frog be "a symbol associated with white supremacy?"
And while we can discuss the wisdom of Clinton amplifying the alt-right some other time, I have some bad news for you. Hillary Clinton is right: Pepe is a white supremacist.
We're far enough into the age of the meme that there are multiple honest-to-god meme scholars, as in, people who have Ph.Ds in the study of online culture and spend their days teaching university classes about memes and writing books about memes.
The premise of Ryan Milner's upcoming book The World Made Meme (which grew out of his doctoral dissertation) is that memes are "aggregate texts that are collectively created, circulated, and transformed" and have "become a part of public conversations that shape broader cultural debates."
Rule number one about memes is that because of their aggregate and additive nature, they have a "collective" meaning that the creator of it has no real control over. So a meme's connotation or meaning is whatever the people who use it believe it means.
"Even if the text isn't inherently racist (it had less of those trappings back in my day, although there is maybe some ethnic caricature in its name I guess), it's being employed by alt-right types pretty frequently, and so it's got that connotation on it now," Milner, who is an assistant professor at the College of Charleston, told me in an email.
Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, a history of 4chan trolling, added that the "meaning [of a meme] exists within the audience" and memes are "easily harnessed for ambivalent ends."
Pepe, then, was a blank slate that has come to mean all sorts of things over the course of his short miserable life. (To his credit, Pepe creator Matt Furie seems to inherently understand this.) And right now, Pepe is being used by the alt-right to signify support for the Trump campaign, which has itself been built largely on xenophobia, racism, and white supremacy. This means that Pepe now "scans" as xenophobic or white supremacist, meaning Pepe can be used by the alt-right to slyly say "I'm one of you."
Thought about another way, Pepe is just a symbol, in the same way that a swastika is. A swastika didn't always mean "I'm a Nazi," but it overwhelmingly means that now. Posting a Pepe meme didn't always mean "I support Trump," but increasingly that's what it's being used for.
"In the memetic struggle for Pepe's fate, racist associations are pretty loud and therefore winning out"
The additive effect of memetic meaning isn't limited to what the internet does with it, of course. Memes are pieces of popular culture that can be influenced by how the mainstream engages them. Like it or not, Hillary Clinton's blog post is kind of a self-fulfilling meme prophecy. If Clinton says a meme is associated with white supremacy, surely it soon will be.
"Complicating the idea that 'Pepe doesn't inherently mean white supremacy,' by amplifying the white supremacist connection, that draws more people not just to that image or idea but the alt-right more broadly," Phillips said.
"For example, Pepe might not mean white supremacy inherently but 'Pepe means white supremacy' becomes a meme that perpetuates that connection regardless," she added. "Hillary Clinton's explainer thing will go as far to push the white supremacy connection and keep the alt-right in the news more than any actual white supremacists' engagement, and that is all part of their game I'd reckon."
And so by saying that Pepe is a white supremacist, Hillary Clinton is doing quite a bit to make it so.
"In the memetic struggle for Pepe's fate, racist associations are pretty loud and therefore winning out," Milner said. "Guilt by association. Poor Pepe."
Feels bad, man.