An employee at The Outline was recently gifted a white baseball cap that featured a hand making the “OK” sign, index and thumb in a circle, other fingers pointing up.
But once he started wearing the hat, he began to notice things that suggested maybe the hand sign had a political association.
Alt-right hero Milo Yiannopoulos likes to pose with the hand sign, as he did in this photo in front of the White House. Former Breitbart writer Mike Ma used it at an event celebrating Trump's election. Jim Hoft and Lucian Wintrich of the conservative blog The Gateway Pundit, which leans alt-right, posed with it in the White House press room.
Finally, a friend asked, “Why do you have a hat with the hand symbol that Trump always makes when he’s talking?” Indeed, Forbes wrote that “the air pinch with thumb and forefinger” is the president’s “most recognized hand gesture.”
The hat went into the closet.
Symbols have no inherent meaning; they are imbued with it. In 2016, the cartoon Pepe the Frog was infamously adopted by Trump supporters and white supremacists. Pepe's creator Matt Furie was saddened to see that the cartoon had been co-opted to the point that the Anti-Defamation League labeled it a hate symbol. “It’s the worst-case scenario for any artist to lose control of their work and eventually have it labelled like a swastika or a burning cross,” he told The Guardian.
The OK sign has a much longer history than Pepe, but even it is context-dependent. In some countries, including the US, it has a positive connotation. “Basically, it means that something is being expressed precisely,” said David Mcneill, director of McNeill Lab, Center for Gesture and Speech Research, at the University of Chicago. “The key detail is the contact of thumb and first finger — the vanishing space is a metaphor for precision.” The gesture has slightly different meanings in different places. In Naples, he said, it means something like authority — that the speaker is speaking the truth. In other places, it’s a negative or vulgar symbol.
It's unclear exactly how the OK symbol got started as an alt-right meme, but it may trace back to a version of “Smug Pepe,” a meme in which Pepe holds his chin. In one variation he’s instead making an OK hand gesture, reminiscent of Trump.
This specific Pepe started circulating in online communities of alt-right and Trump supporters in early 2015, according to Don Caldwell, a senior editor at Know Your Meme.
“Around that time, Pepe depictions that were kind of Trump-related started to appear on 4chan’s politics board,” he said. “Trump supporters seemed to circulate these Trump-like depictions of Pepe, and then Donald Trump himself around mid-October tweeted one of them.”
When asked about the gesture, Lauren Southern, a popular alt-right conservative who first came to prominence in 2015 for provoking feminists, sent a cryptic email. “We just say ‘do the thing’ and everyone knows what you're talking about,” Southern said when asked about the hand sign, attaching the following image of Trump:
She did not respond to follow-up questions.
Some people point to Pizza Party Ben, a Trump supporter, comedian, and Breitbart contributor, for popularizing the OK hand signal, Caldwell said. Pizza Party Ben had a fairly prolific Twitter account with around 72,000 followers, and he used the gesture as a calling card of sorts. His account was suspended at the end of March for unclear reasons.
“We just say ‘do the thing’ and everyone knows what you're talking about.”
While the exact source and reason might be up for debate — be it Trump, Pepe, Pizza Party Ben, or otherwise — it’s all over alt-right circles. Malik Obama, Barack Obama’s half-brother and alt-right obsessive, tweeted a photo of himself making the OK sign and made it his Twitter profile picture. Ethan Ralph of The Ralph Retort, a popular destination for the Gamergate crowd which overlaps with the alt-right crowd, currently has a photo of himself making the sign as his Twitter profile picture. White nationalist Richard Spencer posted a photo of himself making the sign the night of the election.
I look like Pepe the Frog https://t.co/G98InJcRqn— Malik Obama (@ObamaMalik) December 3, 2016
All this speculation over the gesture may start to sound like conspiracy theorists looking for signs of the Illuminati, but the fear of associating oneself inadvertently with a hate symbol is real. Once a symbol has been appropriated by a hate group or even just a polarizing political collective, that association can be very difficult to shake.
The most famous example is probably the Nazi swastika. The swastika functioned as a good luck symbol, with instances across the globe from the United States to China, until the Nazis adopted it. Any attempt to reclaim it now is moot. “It is too late for such righteous attempts,” author Steven Heller wrote in 2001 about his book The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? “The atrocities committed under this magnificently designed form must never be forgotten.”
The OK hand gesture certainly isn’t that far gone. According to Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it really all depends on how thoroughly a symbol is appropriated. “I don’t think anybody’s going to accuse any user of Facebook for posting a picture of their wife or husband after giving birth to a child and giving the OK symbol as propagating racist messaging,” Lenz said. “In that context, I think when you see someone like Stephen Miller very clearly adjusting his suit with the hand gesture on both hands, it is very clearly the Pepe OK. You know what that means.”
“It is too late for such righteous attempts.”
Miller, a senior White House advisor, was photographed in the White House Briefing Room adjusting his suit and tie with an odd hand configuration before a television appearance in February 2017. Some have claimed Miller was using a gesture meaning “white power,” but it’s difficult to tell from the photo alone. To Lenz, and others, it’s the OK symbol. But even so, the symbol is still far from being irreversibly co-opted.
“For the sake of argument, let’s say that we have a politician,” Lenz said. “A politician whose policies are overtly racist, overtly anti-Semitic, overtly anti-immigrant or whatever they may be. And this symbol, this OK hand symbol, then becomes something that is like a rallying cry. There are auditoriums and amphitheaters filled with people throwing up the OK symbol, then I think the symbol is lost. The symbol becomes on par with the Nazi [salute].”
The alt-right meme machine has claimed Pepe; you can’t even put him on a skirt anymore. While it hasn’t lost its mainstream meaning yet, the OK symbol may be creeping in the same direction.
A version of this story appeared in our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch.