Maybe you’ve seen Pepe the Frog without knowing his name. He’s been tweeted by Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. shared him on Instagram. Hillary Clinton’s website even bemoans him at length. This is truly a watershed moment for memes on the world stage.
As someone who has, in the past, plumbed the dankest corners of the internet, I have watched this cartoon frog evolve since even before Obama was elected. He’s been significantly co-opted by internet white supremacists, but I’d argue that still isn’t his primary meaning, although that might be a losing battle.
Know Your Meme has a concise but well-sourced accounting of his evolution, but there is a crucial component left out, one which, I think, ties everything together. It answers the question, “why did the alt-right choose this mascot?”
Pepe the Frog is Shameless
Lets take a minute and examine the thing that originally made Pepe famous on the interweb boards, the source of Pepe’s original “Feels Good Man” meme: a 6-panel comic from Boys’ Club by Matt Furie (WARNING: contains brief cartoon frog butt). I remember this comic 8 years after I first saw it because I found it so terribly funny at the time.
To summarize for the squeamish: Pepe goes to the bathroom. He pulls his pants all the way down while standing at the toilet, despite being far too old for such behavior. A friend walks in and unintentionally sees this. When another friend questions Pepe about it, he simply replies, “feels good man” without so much as punctuation. He is not embarrassed at all about very odd behavior would terribly embarrass most people. He displays a profound, innocent shamelessness.
The subtext of the resulting “feels good man” meme at the time featuring Pepe was thus: “I don’t care what anyone thinks of my behavior, it feels good.”
Donald Trump and the Alt-Right are Shameless
The contemporary parallels to Trump and his fringe-ier supporters should be obvious. These are people who value “based“-ness above all else, who pride themselves on not caring what anybody thinks, and extol such virtue in others, so long as the viewpoint expressed is one they agree with.
This is not about tying Trump part and parcel to the alt-right in terms of policy. How can I, when Trump is so vague and inconsistent as to what his policies even are? (Edit: and, I should add, the squishiness of “alt-right” as a term.) I’m saying that Trump is, broadly, a shameless person, and this inspires respect and even loyalty in other shameless people, or people who wish they could be shameless.
And it must “feel good man” from their perspective to be pushing back against liberal shaming culture, which has its own excesses.