Among the most bizarre aspects of this presidential election, even one in which a shaken three-liter of Sunkist has spewed its acidic stickiness all over America’s floor, is the surprisingly large role that’s been played by a cartoon frog. Pepe—the sad-eyed, vaguely dyspeptic cartoon character originally created by web comic artist Matt Furie for his strip Boy’s Club—has taken a strange journey from 4chan in-joke to nationally recognized hate symbol in a matter of months, after appearing in the social media posts of the “alt-right” and other ironic-or-whatever white nationalist tools. As our children will one day read in their history books (in the chapter titled “We’re Sorry”), Pepe has even been coopted by the candidates themselves. Both Trump and his own, Playboy-cartoon-stockbroker of a son have shared his dumb memes, while Hillary Clinton’s website even posted a Pepe “explainer” that summarized this “sinister frog” with all the seriousness of a PTA newsletter, warning parents about the dangers of whippets.
In short, this whole thing is fucking weird, and as Furie tells Esquire in a new interview, he’s just as baffled by it as you are.
“I had never heard of the alt-right or any of that stuff—even white nationalism—I don’t know about that shit,” Furie says. “I’m learning about that stuff with you, about what the hell is going on.” Like Trump’s campaign itself, Furie’s tale is one of an “idiotic joke” spiraling dangerously out of control. Last year, Furie told Vice that he thought Pepe’s new online life was “cool,” even flattering, his sole objection that Pepe was being linked with another meme character he didn’t quite understand and some changes that were made to his wardrobe. But now that Pepe has become the mascot for, as Furie puts it, “these anonymous Internet trolls who don’t stand for anything except for nihilism and getting a rise out of whatever racist or sexist or disgusting thing they can do,” things are decidedly uncool, particularly given that—unlike most memes—his name is still publicly attached to it.
As Furie makes redundantly clear, Pepe’s recent political activity doesn’t represent him or his beliefs: He’s not a white supremacist, and what’s more, he’s “voting for Hillary for sure. I was a big fan of Bernie, but that fizzled out, so I’m all Hillary 2016.” So he’s amused—if understandably aghast—that, for example, someone recently shouted “Pepe!” at a Clinton rally while she was in the middle of condemning Trump’s appeal among racists and xenophobes.
Nevertheless, Furie remains fairly even-tempered about seeing his laid-back, stoner frog dressed up in Nazi regalia, herding Jewish caricatures into ovens and the like, with Furie stoically recognizing the feckless pursuit of condemning assholes on Twitter. He also expresses his faith that this will all blow over once the election finally, mercifully ends, and the internet inevitably moves on to its next frog. Still, Furie’s fury at “these masturbatory anime dudes who post dumb shit online all day” is evident, as is his horror at seeing his drawing enter the hate symbol database of the Anti-Defamation League. After all, no one really knows the name of the guy who drew the first swastika—and suffice it to say, he wasn’t trying to sell children’s books.
Furie can likely take some solace in knowing Pepe has reached the point where even America’s uncool mom knows about him, giving him the sort of mainstream exposure that’s typically the death knell for memes. But if you believe the theory of “meme magic” as laid out in this lengthy treatise that you absolutely should not read (but also maybe read), Pepe’s rise was predestined in ancient Egyptian mythology, and his greater destiny cannot be controlled by anyone—not the trolls who wield him, not the “normies” who try to suppress him, and certainly not the innocent, inconsequential artist who created him. Furie’s protests of “He’s just a chill frog” aside, Pepe’s strange prominence in this hijacked comment section of an election shows that there is nothing the internet cannot take and continue to make a thousand times worse.