The green frog was behind the United States side of the metal fence at the country’s southernmost border, smirking and holding a Donald Trump campaign button up to his chin.
A caricature of a Mexican couple—the man dressed in a sombrero and poncho, the woman with braided hair and an infant in her arms—looked out at him through the barricade and cried.
Then the frog was someplace else entirely, this time covered in Nazi insignia: above his smirk, the phrase “SKIN HEAD” and a swastika; over his left eyelid, “14,” the numeric shorthand for “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”; and over his right eyelid, “88,” which stands for “Heil Hitler.”
And there the frog was yet again, standing at a lectern stamped with the presidential seal, a red tie hanging from his green neck, Trump’s iconic hair arranged on his head and an American flag at his back.
This is Pepe, a cartoon amphibian introduced to the world sans swastikas and Trump associations in 2005, on Myspace, in the artist Matt Furie’s comic strip Boy’s Club, and popularized on 4chan in the ensuing 11 years, culminating in 2015, when teens shared Pepe’s likeness so many times he became the biggest meme on Tumblr. (Furie did not respond to an interview request from The Daily Beast.)
Like all great art, Pepe was open to endless interpretation, but at the end of the day, he meant whatever you wanted him to mean. All in good fun, teens made Batman Pepe, Supermarket Checkout Girl Pepe, Borat Pepe, Keith Haring Pepe, and carved Pepe pumpkins.
But he also embodied existential angst. Pepe, the grimiest but most versatile meme of all, was both hero and antihero—a symbol fit for all of life’s ups and downs and the full spectrum of human emotions, as they played out online.
On social media, Pepe became inescapable. Katy Perry tweeted a crying Pepe with the caption “Australian jet lag got me like,” racking up over 10,000 retweets. Nicki Minaj posted a twerking Pepe on Instagram with the caption “Me on Instagram for the next few weeks trying to get my followers back up,” which 282,000 users ‘liked.’
And then, recently, things took a turn: Pepe became socially unacceptable.
Turns out that was by design.
@JaredTSwift is an anonymous white nationalist who claims to be 19 years old and in school someplace on the West Coast. He told me there is “an actual campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies.”
Normies are basics—agreeable, mainstream members of society who have no knowingly abhorrent political views or unsavory hobbies. They are Katy Perry, and when they latch onto a meme, the meme dies the way your favorite band dies when it sells out and licenses a song to Chevrolet. When mainstream culture gets in on the joke, in other words, the joke is ruined forever.
The campaign to reclaim Pepe from normies was an effort to prevent this sort of death, but it also had the effect of desensitizing swaths of the Internet to racist, but mostly anti-Semitic, ideas supported by the so-called alt-right movement.
It began in late 2015 on /r9k/, a controversial 4chan board where, as on any message board, it can be difficult to discern how serious commenters are being or if they’re just fucking around entirely. Nevertheless, /r9k/ has been tied to Elliot Rodger—the UC Santa Barbara shooter who killed six people in 2014—who found fans there, and GamerGate. There, Pepe transformed from harmless cartoon to big green monster.
“We basically mixed Pepe in with Nazi propaganda, etc. We built that association,” @JaredTSwift said.
He sent me a “rare Pepe,” an ironic categorization for certain versions of the meme: Pepe, his eyes red and irises swastika-shaped, against a trippy rainbow backdrop. “Do with it what you will,” he said.
Building the Trump association came next, after which @JaredTSwift said the images got crossover appeal. They began to move from 4chan to Twitter, which is when “journalists were exposed to it via Trump memes.”
On Jan. 7, Cheri Jacobus, a Republican consultant and pundit who is suing Trump for defamation and has been harassed by Trump supporters, tweeted, “The green frog symbol is what white supremacists use in their propaganda. U don’t want to go there.”
#FrogTwitter considered Jacobus, the first prominent person to be duped, its first scalp and inundated her with ever more Pepe images and Trump memes, some of which were violent and sexually explicit.
In one, a blond woman is decapitated before Pepe has intercourse with her headless body. In another, Jacobus’s face is photoshopped onto a topless woman kneeling before Trump, who is himself photoshopped to wear a Nazi uniform.
“When they adapt Pepe the green frog and turn it into an anti-Semite, staring into the screen with the World Trade Center behind it, is that cute or funny?” she asked when reached by phone Wednesday.
“Does that make it OK? I don’t know,” she said. “Violent and disturbing images are violent and disturbing images regardless of what their stated reasons are.”
Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor at National Review, a conservative publication opposed to Trump’s candidacy, asked Twitter on Jan. 30, “Does anyone know what that green face is that ‘alt’ and ‘cuck’ people put in their avatars and their other images?”
@TopKanker replied with an image of Pepe dressed as a Nazi soldier and holding a Star of David.
On May 16, Ben White, a reporter for Politico, tweeted a drawing of Pepe and asked, “What/who is this character and why do I see it associated with Trumpsters/Alt-Right types all the time?”
#FrogTwitter descended on White’s mentions, with predictable results. @DonaldjBismarck, a self-described “Nationalist,” replied with a meme of Hillary Clinton, squinting at a computer screen and asking, “WHO THE HELL IS PEPE?”
“Turns out asking about Pepe was a bad idea,” White tweeted, in conclusion.
But Pepe’s twisted transformation wouldn’t be complete until a few hours after White’s foray down the froghole, when Margarita Noriega, an executive editor at Newsweek, tweeted a Pepe at Marco Rubio.
Benny Polatseck, who runs the public relations firm Colossal PR, accused Noriega of employing an image “used by racists to make fun of latinos.” Noriega deleted the Pepe.
“Most memes are ephemeral by nature, but Pepe is not,” @JaredTSwift told me. “He’s a reflection of our souls, to most of us. It’s disgusting to see people (‘normies,’ if you will) use him so trivially. He belongs to us. And we’ll make him toxic if we have to.”
@JaredTSwift said some of the support for Trump was in jest, but for most of his cohorts, it’s sincere. He even claimed to have voted for Trump in the primary himself, wherever it is he lives, and said he’d vote for him in the general, too.
“In a sense, we’ve managed to push white nationalism into a very mainstream position,” he said. “Trump’s online support has been crucial to his success, I believe, and the fact is that his biggest and most devoted online supporters are white nationalists. Now, we’ve pushed the Overton window. People have adopted our rhetoric, sometimes without even realizing it. We’re setting up for a massive cultural shift.”
Another anonymous white nationalist, @PaulTown_, claimed to be “in my late 20s,” but declined to say where he exists geographically, other than to confirm that, every few months, he meets the members of his community in New York City. He estimated the broad #FrogTwitter movement to consist of about 30 people but said 10 core members helped plot it out over drinks in late 2015, before taking to /r9k/.
“We all do some weightlifting, so we met through friends involved in that scene,” he said. “Turning Pepe into a white nationalist icon was one of our original goals, although we’ve had our hands in many other things.”
One of those things has been helping to turn Taylor Swift into an “Aryan goddess.” When several publications (Broadly, Slate, and The Washington Post) this week reported on the alt-right’s fixation on the pop star, #FrogTwitter was somewhat triumphant. “I never thought that would work,” @JaredTSwift said, “but they finally noticed.”
@PaulTown_ characterized Pepe as “an experiment” the group used “as a test.”
“As you can see,” he said, “it went better than we could ever have imagined.”