This past summer I taught a college composition course that focused on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The final assignment in the class required students to assemble an online portfolio where they reflected on their progress as writers and researchers over the quarter.
Having taught this class before, I knew that these portfolios often provided insight but sometimes devolved into a series of clichés about improvement accompanied by colorful and irrelevant images designed not so much to convey a rhetorical message but to distract from the lack of substance in the writing. It is with this cynicism that I regarded the above image, prominently plastered on the homepage of one student’s portfolio.
Though I found the Pepe the Frog meme a bit baffling in the context of the assignment, I quickly dismissed it as an attempt to take up space and moved on to grading other portfolios.
On September 27, less than a month after I submitted final grades for my class, the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe the Frog a “hate symbol,” citing its association with “the ‘alt right’ segment of the white supremacist movement.” Weeks before the ADL’s declaration, the Clinton campaign had pointed out that supporters of Donald Trump frequently depicted the presidential candidate as the human embodiment of Pepe and, by extension, the alt-right.
When reading the Anti-Defamation League’s statement, I was struck by the meme’s appropriateness as a symbol for Trump’s presidential bid. Not only did it capture the racism and xenophobia that permeated Trump’s rhetoric, but it did so in an equally ridiculous way: at this point I essentially regarded Trump as the equivalent of a cartoon frog, a man whose statements were so outlandish, his campaign such a sideshow, that he couldn’t possibly be elected president.
I was wrong, of course, and it wasn’t until I turned off CNN’s election coverage last Tuesday night that I remembered my student’s use of the Pepe meme and began to put the pieces together. I recalled his resistance to Alexander’s argument that any semblance of black progress in American history is followed consistently and cyclically with a crackdown; I recalled his disagreements with The New Jim Crow’s careful and fact-based analysis of discrimination against African Americans in the criminal justice system; I recalled his incredulity over Alexander’s claim that racism still exists in a country that had twice elected a black president; I recalled him flipping through a stack of business cards as I awkwardly tried to discuss structural racism.
I began to suspect that, far from using the Pepe image randomly, he employed it to drive home one last time his defiant rejection of Alexander’s thesis. Had I interpreted Pepe in this way, the election’s results might not have come as such a shock to me.
I do not know whether this student used the meme to convey an alt-right message, nor do I know whether he voted for Trump. In a way, though, his intention is beside the point. As I teach my students at the beginning of every quarter, rhetoric (and, more generally, language) cannot be judged solely on the intention of the communicator. Its power depends just as much on its reception, especially when that reception is distorted by forces beyond the control of the author.
The evolution of the Pepe meme is itself an instructive (and extreme) example: created in a context that had absolutely nothing to do with white supremacy, its repeated association with racism and anti-Semitism forever altered the way one interprets it; it is now impossible for me not to think of Trump or bigotry when I see the cartoon frog. Those on 4chan or Reddit who insist, however disingenuously, that the association between Pepe and neo-Nazism is intended purely for shock value or irony fundamentally and perhaps willingly misunderstand that such acts of distortion can themselves be distorted and translated into the sort of reality we now face as a country.
This same situation applies to the rhetoric of President-elect Trump. Divorced from context, one can, for example, read his invocation of “law and order” as a simple pledge to cut down on crime. But such an interpretation ignores the history of that specific phrase, which, as Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, “was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement” (40).
If Pepe the Frog began innocently but morphed into a dark assertion of white nationalism, “law and order” originated as a colorblind euphemism for an anti-civil rights agenda and appears (at least to some) as a neutral and self-evident desire for lower crime rates. The power of Trump’s rhetoric is predicated on the fact that some voters will hear “law and order” as a reasonable assertion of public safety while others will revel in its darker implications, whether they consciously realize it or not.
These observations about rhetoric might be obvious, but I bring them up for a very important reason. We are about to find out whether Trump intends to follow through on his more radical campaign promises, from building a wall to deporting immigrants to banning Muslims from the country.
Even if such outlandish pledges ultimately amount to a cynical manipulation of the electorate (at least a possibility given Newt Gingrich’s admission that making Mexico pay for a wall might have simply been “a great campaign device” on Trump’s part), one need only follow Shaun King on Twitter to realize that Trump’s words have authorized and emboldened an attitude that has translated into action against women and people of color, even if that action is taken independently of executive decision. Those who claim that a vote for Trump is not a vote for racism ignore the fact that, like any rhetorical act, one’s vote has consequences that extend beyond the intentions of the voter.
I’m left wondering what would have happened if I had confronted my student about his use of the Pepe meme: did he intend to simply express his apathetic skepticism toward the course material, an apathy so prevalent in the internet culture from which Pepe emerged, or was his act rooted in the darker side of Reddit? If it was mere cynicism, did this cynicism compel him to vote for a candidate he didn’t think would win but who nevertheless did? Did he even want him to win?
I will not soon forget that I too acted cynically in reading the meme as yet another manifestation of student laziness rather than as a message freighted with rhetorical significance. How did I get it so wrong? How did we get it so wrong?