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The great Meme War of 2016, which pit the white supremacist alt-right against a left that often didn’t realize there was a war going on, turned the innocent everyman meme Pepe the Frog into a Nazi hate symbol.
Like Pepe, Trash Dove had innocent beginnings: It’s part of a cute iPhone icon set by artist Syd Weiler, and it’s also something of an everyman character. “It’s whatever you want it to be,” she told Thai news site Khao Sod.
And what at least one person wants it to be is the Pepe of the American left, a general symbol that can help progressives appeal to meme culture the way Pepe helped President Donald Trump.
Facebook via 4chan /pol/
But on 4chan‘s /pol/, the politics board that’s now largely dominated by the alt-right, Trump supporters, and blatant Nazi iconography, the right has decided that a leftist Trash Dove is not going to fly.
“Why does the left suck at meme magic?” asked one poster. Soon, they’d made plans to turn Trash Dove into an alt-right meme instead of a leftist one and started Photoshopping the bird with swastikas and other Nazi insignia.
It’s even got a new name, “Pek,” which takes a little bit of explaining. Last year, 4chan discovered the Egyptian god Kek, whose name happens to be the same as common 4chan slang for laughter or amusement. And Kek had the head of a frog. So, naturally, Pepe the Frog was the reincarnation of Kek, who became the patron god of the pro-Trump meme campaign. When Trump was elected, many shitposters credited “meme magic” for his victory.
Now the Trash Dove is being hailed as a potential reincarnation of Thoth, the bird-headed god. Previously, 4chan made the Thoth connection with a different, totally racist meme, Moon Man, but never mind that for now. Pek is here.
Like a lot of things on 4chan, it’s hard to tell if this whole thing is satirical. The most likely case is that, like the white supremacist tendencies on the site, it started out as a joke but eventually turned real.
Posters on liberal Facebook groups are alarmed by the bird spam—most of which is totally innocent, carried out by mainstream Facebook “normies”—and have decided that any use of the bird is low-key fascist propaganda.
Screengrab via Facebook
Quincy Frey satirized this outrage in a Medium post that mocked the overreaction and panic over the alleged Nazification of Trash Dove but also included a whole bunch of Nazi bird Photoshops. These images are all over /pol/, too—and it almost doesn’t matter whether they’re sincere at this point.
As soon as the Trump memers discovered that liberals were concerned about possible alt-right cooption of Trash Dove, they took the opportunity to “trigger” the left with the bird.
Previously, 4chan considered Trash Dove to be a cancerous “normie” meme—that is, nothing more than annoying—but as soon as their political opponents decided the bird was “alt-right,” it turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy and /pol/’s idea of a good joke.
Last year, Miles Klee argued on the Daily Dot that Pepe the Frog is not inherently a Nazi or fascist—he’s an every-meme that people will always tie to the most controversial, edgy developments of the moment, from the Holocaust to 9/11 to the Trump campaign. After all, you can put a swastika on anything.
As Frey’s satirical piece makes clear, the same thing is happening to Trash Dove, and calling it a “low-key Nazi symbol” is probably an exaggeration. Although some trolls may add Nazi iconography (or Make America Great Hats) to it, that’s just a tactic to annoy liberals. The original headbanging pigeon is still just an image that some people love and many others are irritated by.
Jay Hathaway is a former senior writer who specialized in internet memes and weird online culture. He previously served as the Daily Dot’s news editor, was a staff writer at Gawker, and edited the classic websites Urlesque and Download Squad. His work has also appeared on nymag.com, suicidegirls.com, and the Morning News.