In Charlottesville, when it seemed like the Nazis had been driven from town, shortly before the terrorist attack that killed Heather Heyer, a group of anti-racist protesters gathered in a small park and set fire to several Confederate flags and a big green-white-and-black flag of Kekistan.
I stood in the dirt beneath a tree and watched the two flags wither and curl beneath their own combustion on the dark ground. One was born of the slaveholder insurrection against the U.S. and the other from what some in the message-board subculture call the "great meme war of 2016." Both, somehow, represent the Trump coalition.
Kekistan grew out of the Pepe the Frog meme. Pepe became popular after a strip by his creator, Matt Furie, depicted him peeing with his pants all the way down because "feels good, man."
The videogamers, "men's rights" activists, hackers, trolls and shitposters who populate sites like 4Chan started embracing the Pepe the Frog meme to symbolize, as Dale Beran explained in a viral Medium post, "embracing your loserdom, owning it."
Soon, Pepe, who suddenly embodied the troll ethos, also found an analogue in politics. As Beran put it: "Trump, the loser, the outsider, the hot mess, the pathetic joke, embodies this duality. Trump represents both the alpha and the beta."
In May, Furie drew a strip showing Pepe lying dead in a casket. But his creation had by then already escaped him.
At the same time as the far-right elements on message boards began to adopt Pepe, they also began using the letters KEK instead of LOL to indicate online laughter. Then, when they noticed that there was an Egyptian god named Kek, who was depicted as a frog-headed man, these guys – and they are decidedly guys – had a mythology and a god.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center's entry on the alt-right's association with the deity, "Kek was portrayed as a bringer of chaos and darkness, which happened to fit perfectly with the alt-right's self-image as being primarily devoted to destroying the existing world order."
To go along with their new half-ironic religion, they created a purely digital (and imaginary) country called Kekistan. After the election, they made Trump their Emperor God. And they started getting flags made.
Now, partly because his image has become associated with the likes of the Nazis at Charlottesville, Furie has sent cease-and-desist notices to a number of alt-right figures such as Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich and "Baked Alaska."
Baked Alaska, who claims to have been almost blinded by Antifa activists in Charlottesville, tweeted: "Hillary Clinton's lawyers have been summoned to sue me, [Cernovich], & others over a cartoon frog meme. Bad idea to start this battle." Others have called for a new meme war attacking Furie for challenging their use of his creation.
But the two flags, burning beside each other, stuck in my mind – so the next time I saw some of them, at the Mother of All Rallies on the National Mall earlier this month (see "Down with the clown," Sept. 20), I asked them about the association of their flag with that of the Nazis in Charlottesville.
One guy carrying a flag and wearing a green robe did a bunch of interviews (though he had nothing to say) before scampering off behind an Eric Trump-looking Proud Boy like a cartoon puppy. There was another, more practical Kekistani standing around with a group of militia members – his allegiance to his online community was expressed in a T-shirt with a green fist rising up above the word "Kekistan." Below, it said something about the "normie occupation," a phrase used to indicate the oppression of the nerd by normal people.
He was wearing a fur hat with a Go-Pro camera mounted on its front. A walkie-talkie and a megaphone hung from his backpack straps. With his long-beard, it half-looked like he was cosplaying Alexander Dugin, the bearded Russian theorist sometimes called "Putin's Rasputin."
When I asked him why he's out repping Kekistan, he rather politely replied, "How OK with swearing are you?"
"Totally fine," I say.
"I am an ethnic shitposter," he says. "Which is, essentially, I'm an asshole for the sake of being an asshole." He says his name is Diogenes, because Diogenes the Cynic was the first real troll.
"So, like, at Charlottesville I saw people burning a Kekistan flag as well as like a Confederate flag and stuff and if a shitposter is just being an asshole to be an asshole, is that cool?" I ask. "Is that part of being an asshole, or does that bother you?"
"Oh, people have the freedom to do whatever they want so long as they're the ones who bought it and own it themselves," Diogenes says. "If it's their property –"
"I just mean to have your thing associated with other things," I interrupt. "Being associated with what happened in Charlottesville. Is that weird?"
"No," he says. "People are going to freely associate with whatever they want. I mean, it's unfortunate that they had to bring an insane racism to it, but there are those people. ... Some of them do it just to be an asshole and they think that they're edgy and it will hurt people's feelings."
"And it does," he continues, almost admiringly. "It's when they legitimately mean it that it becomes an issue and it's when they're trying to make it [racism] law that it becomes an issue."
That really stunned me, but it shouldn't have. For shitposters like Diogenes, it seems that the problem with the Nazis is that they aren't ironic enough in their hatred.
And it explains why they love Trump and the so-called "alt-light" figures like Cernovich who revel in trolling the media with half-ironic bigotry. They aren't truly dedicated to hate. They just want to hurt people's feelings.
Like the President, the shitposters think they're wised up but have ended up as "useful idiots," using their digital skills to help normalize Nazis and also further active Russian measures to undermine our democracy.