Trump Time Capsule #101: Pepe the Frog

Mock 'The Deplorables' poster. From left: Roger Stone, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Eric Trump, Mike Pence, The Man, Pepe the Frog, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr., Alex Jones, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Trump Jr. said he was "honored" by the grouping. (Donald J. Trump Jr. on Instagram, via Tina Nguyen in Vanity Fair)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Remember the episode of “the Star,” reported back in installment #33? It was only two months ago, but it seems forever.

Remember this?

Way back in July, Donald Trump retweeted an item showing Hillary Clinton awash in a sea of cash, with the message “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” emblazoned on a six-sided star. Criticism quickly arose about the overlap with classic money-hungry anti-Semitic imagery, much as if Trump had used an image of blacks eating watermelon or Mexicans dozing under their sombreros. Fairly quickly Trump took the rare-for-him step of actually deleting his tweet. But even then his campaign’s reaction was outraged innocence. Anti-Semitic? What are you talking about?? Why would you think it’s a Star of David? It’s so obviously a sheriff’s badge! The real racists are the ones who think anything else!

That’s what this weekend’s “Pepe” episode reminds me of.

As a reminder: Hillary Clinton set the stage with her tin-eared comment about the “basket of deplorables.” Then the stylish and unembarrassable Trump ally Roger Stone responded with the Expendables-knock-off movie poster you see above, which Donald Trump Jr. then shared on Instagram, as shown below:

Donald J. Trump Jr’s comment on the poster, via Tina Nguyen.

Why is this like “the Star”? Because of Pepe the Frog.

For some people, what I’m about to say is old news and obvious. But for many, perhaps most, it’s important to have the whole context laid out.

If you’ve spent any time in the thickets of “alt-right” activism in recent years, you know perfectly well who Pepe is and what he stands for. In the “Deplorables” poster he is of course the figure with green skin and Trump-style hair standing alongside The Man. But to people who would actually fit “the deplorables” standard of racial animus, Pepe is also the wink-wink insiders’ symbol not just of racism but even of outright exterminationism.

From a typical day’s email.

You can read an account of Pepe’s recent history via the Daily Beast a few months ago here. He also has a pre-racist internet meme history, which you can see here. I’m not going to share the Pepe variants I keep getting in the mail, but they include:

Pepe as a sly smiling gas-chamber operator, inviting Jews to take a “shower”; Pepe working the crematoria, after the gas chambers have done their job; Pepe at the glorious new southern Wall, grinning at the plight of Mexicans trapped on the other side; Pepe as an Orthodox Jew, smirking (because of the “inside job”) as the World Trade Centers come down 15 years ago; Pepe with a lynch mob.

Again, it’s old news, and that is the point. If you’re involved in politics, you know this. You know exactly what the image of Pepe signifies in political uses these days. So for the son and namesake of the Republican nominee to share with pride a poster including Pepe necessarily means either that he does not know about Pepe, which indicates incompetence—or that he does, which indicates something worse.

***

The episode should be more disturbing than the conceivably misunderstood six-sided star. In that case, an innocent if unlikely alternative explanation was at hand: No, really, it is just a sheriff’s star! What’s wrong with you, that you would think anything else?

But in this case, there is no “nice” version of contemporary political Pepe to fall back on. (Oh, you thought we meant the one from the death camps? Not at all! We meant the one from the lynchings! Sorry for the confusion.) With eight weeks to go until the election, this is what Donald Trump Jr. has been “honored” to send out.

I am not aware of anything like this having happened before.