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Was Pepe to Blame for the Capitol Hill Attack?

Written by: Ben Proud

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

On January 6, 2021, the city upon a hill was attacked. This attack was no 9/11. Nor was this a chess move by a foreign power in a game of realpolitik. What’s more, nor were the perpetrators a mob of extremists dedicated to destroying “The beacon of light and hope for democracy,” as then-President-elect Joe Biden so eloquently framed it. No, that would be a reality too dull to be considered a “truth” in this perceived “post-truth” world.

In this “new” world, seeing is no longer enough to believe. In this “new” world, we must first see then consult the echo chamber of social media before one believes what one has seen. Therefore, in this new calculation of judgement and rationality it is not surprising that the Capitol attack that ended with the death of five people – to some individuals – was not an attack at all. On the contrary, to a number of rioters, the Capitol riot was an act of defence. Moreover, the rioters were not alone, as 52 per cent of Republican voters believed the rioters were protecting democracy. Therefore, one would be forgiven in thinking that it seems that we are now all characters in the latest feature of The Matrix Trilogy.

Whether we decide the storming of the Capitol should be characterised as an attack or a defence of democracy is not the question of this article. But it does provide a clue to answer the question of who or what was to blame? In order to answer that question, to paraphrase Morpheus: we must see how deep the rabbit hole goes!

The rise of Pepe the Frog is a phenomenon that many have seen on their monitors, yet not many understand. This humorous little frog faced cartoon character may have appeared in the form of a meme, prompting laughter among many. However, in recent years you may have noticed this little frog on your favourite news channel or on the main headline of a newspaper. In recent years, Pepe has found himself in some serious trouble!

What on earth does this innocent cartoon character have to do with the Capitol Hill attack? Well, Pepe has been intertwined in a memetic identity crisis. Birthed by comic book artist Matt Furie in 2005. Pepe was one of four main characters in Furie’s light-hearted crude humoured comic series, Boy’s Club. In the appearance, Pepe is a “blissfully stoned frog” who enjoyed “a simple life of snacks, soda and pulling his pants all the way down to go pee.” Fast forward to the contentious 2016 presidential election, Pepe became the meme of choice on 4chan and 8chan forums with the meme leading “alt-right” communication and radicalisation strategies. This resulted in the Anti-Defamation League branding Pepe the Frog as a hate symbol in 2016.

Donald Trump re-tweeted a Trump Pepe

Pepe is an appealing communication strategy precisely because of its humour, irony, ambiguity and popularity. Celebrities such as Katy Perry and Nicky Minaj have posted harmless Pepe memes in the past which have unintentionally helped to bring online subculture content into the mainstream via the process of normalisation. Like all visual aesthetics, Pepe is open to endless interpretation, Borat Pepe, Batman Pepe and Trump Pepe. Each meme camouflaged in codified messaging that blurs the difference between satire and sincerity. Therefore, repetition of far-right ideals into the mainstream help to normalise a climate of racism, misinformation and misogyny.

Image by Geolina163 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

To many who witnessed the events leading up to the storming of the Capitol, it would be reasonable to suggest that Trump was to blame. He certainly played a part. However, David Kilcullen notes that contrary to the belief that Trump is the Pied Piper of extremist incitement. Instead, “the storming of the Capitol revealed him as “the sorcerer’s apprentice: able to turn the violence on but not off.” Rioters made up from QAnon believers, The Oath Keepers, the Boogaloo movement and The Proud Boys made up an assemblage of the “alt-right.” This predominantly online movement made up of different organisations loosely organised around a white nationalist identity, came together in what has since been found to have been planned weeks before the “stop the steal” rally. Consequently, Trump can be seen as the petrol on the fire. However, he didn’t start the fire.

When white nationalist paraphernalia swept through the hollow halls of the Capitol, it was of no coincidence that Pepe made an appearance. Pepe the Frog is merely an instrument of hate, but it is also a symptom of a wider socio-political problem. This problem revolves around a “post-truth crisis” accelerated by a digital technology that has blown apart the media environment. Birthed from the long-term cannibalisation of neoliberalism. In other words, the age of the “expert” is under attack and it has been under attack long before Trump arrived on a political wave of hate. Is Pepe to blame for the Capitol attack? Not directly, however, Pepe as a symbol and a symptom for a long-term change in how we interact with politics. The frog has played its part.

Featured image by Tyler Merbler (CC BY 2.0)

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