Pity poor Pepe the Frog. There he was hanging out on the internet, making wry comments about texting, Pokemon Go, and urination; and suddenly he’s been dragged into the presidential punch up.
In case you need some background (heaven knows I did) here goes: Pepe is a cartoon character created in 2005 who became a popular meme with folks posting all sorts of comments next to his sad frog face. Then white supremacists started using him. Then Donald Trump Junior posted a funny campaign picture that involved Pepe. Then the Clinton camp suggested it was further proof that Republican nominee Donald Trump is racist. And this week the Anti-Defamation League officially labeled poor Pepe a hate symbol. (Note to self: start “Sucks to be a frog” meme)
The Trump campaign quickly dismissed the Clinton complaint as “ridiculous” saying their candidate “disavows all groups and individuals associated with a message of hate.” Donald Trump Junior was asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos about the image he posted and said “I’ve never even heard of Pepe the Frog. I’ll bet 90 percent of your viewers haven’t heard of Pepe the Frog. I thought it was a frog in a wig. I thought it was funny. I had no idea there was any connotation there.”
To be fair, in that original image Pepe was just one of 11 characters so it wasn’t even all about him. Furthermore, although the ADL now calls Pepe a hate symbol it notes “the majority of uses of Pepe the Frog have been, and continue to be, non-bigoted…posting a Pepe meme does not mean that someone is racist or white supremacist.”
So is the Trump team using Pepe to wink at bigots and court their vote, or is the complaint from the Clinton campaign an unfair low blow? In a contest already rife with bitterness, either way the conduct could be called — in popular parlance — deplorable.
And here sits poor Pepe like the proverbial frog in the pot, waiting while the water starts to boil.
(CNN’s Tom Foreman is the author of “My Year of Running Dangerously” and a fan of all amphibians)