My question is as much about the proper use of terminology as it is about the use of the phrases. But I'm asking about instances and usage rather than intent, I'm not asking to read minds.


The English SE question What does “keep their powder dry on where they stand” mean? refers to a recent statement by the US Senate Majority Leader:

The last sentence in the Washington Post's Battle over the replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg rages as tributes to late justice pour in says:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately told his members in a letter circulated Friday night to keep their powder dry on where they stand on proceeding with a confirmation fight this year.

This answer explains that the phrase's origin relates to gun powder:

Before the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Oliver Cromwell famously told his troops to "Trust in God and keep your powder dry"

A week and a half later I heard the phrase used again, this time by former US security adviser John Bolton. Here's a recent CNN News video Ex-Trump official: President's Proud Boys threat was real (my transcription):

Bolton: ...but he’s getting the benefit out of the ambiguity during the interim and he knows it, and he does this all the time.

Blitzer: What did he mean when he said... to this group The Proud Boys what did he mean when he said “Stand back and standby”?

Bolton: I took that to mean “Just back off for now, but to put it a different way: keep your powder dry.

I've heard the term "dog whistle" used frequently when the current US president's words are analyzed. I think it refers to phrases that can have multiple interpretations; they can arguably be innocuous but simultaneously serve a specific purpose and/or send a specific message to a subgroup whose "ears" are more finely tuned to certain phrases or themes. Another example of the concept might be a certain hand position with index finger and thumb touching, other three fingers extended, which most might call the "OK sign", others might see as innocuous inflection to augment speech, but some might see as looking like the letters "WP" standing for "White Power".


Can "keep your powder dry" or "Stand back and standby" be said to be examples of "dog whistles" in these political contexts? I'm not asking if they are or are not dog whistles. While that's an interesting question and potentially askable here, for this question I'd just like to focus on my use of the terminology "dog whistle" and if that term can arguably be applied to "keep your powder dry" or "Stand back and standby".


5 Answers 5


The metaphor of a 'dog whistle' refers to literal dog whistles: whistles that produce tones too high for humans to hear, but which are perfectly audible to dogs and generally excite those dogs to bark and howl. In political usage, it means a public statement that sounds innocuous on the face of it, but which is taken as messaging by certain groups who then 'act out' the ostensible message. Dog whistles work on the principle of deniability: they are statements that encourage or incite a particular kind of behavior or attitude, but do so in an oblique and indirect fashion that protects the speaker from being held responsible for any outcomes. The intended behavior is clear to followers and to targets — e.g., when Trump offered to pay the legal fees of anyone who assaulted a protestor at his rallies, both attendees and protesters recognized it as an incitement to violence — but ambiguous enough that the speaker can reject any accusation of wrongdoing.

Trump's debate statement that the Proud Boys should "stand back and stand by" was explicitly interpreted by members of that group as a message that they should stand ready for combat. Whether Trump intended to send that message is a matter of debate; Trump will certainly deny it. But there is no doubt that Trump blew on that whistle and elicited that 'barking' response, whether or not he was aware that such would be the consequence.

A dog whistle, by its nature, needs to be a public statement — one that can be interpreted by a listening audience as a call to action — so McConnell's private statement would not qualify. Trump's statement, by contrast, was given in an extremely public context, and so clearly has the form of a dog whistle. We can't know whether Trump intended it as such, but as both Bolton and the Proud Boys demonstrate it overtly had that effect. The phrase can be used that way; the rest de-evolves to mind reading.

-- Edit --

I should add, just for completeness, that "keep your powder dry" is an explicit (if archaic) military phrase that literally means keep yourself ready for battle. Had Trump used it, it would have been hard for him to deny that that he was directly inciting violence. That wouldn't be a dog whistle so much as an overt call to action. I think that's the essence of Bolton's statement, that the ambiguous 'stand back and stand by' is morally equivalent to the unambiguous 'keep your powder dry'.

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    I dispute your conclusion that it's a dog whistle, since by your own definition it needs to be "innocuous on the face of it". I dispute that there is any innocuous interpretation or explanation available. It's not a dog whistle, it is openly shouting to the dogs.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 13:01
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    @Jonita: It's fairly clear from the PB's reaction that this is how they took the comment. The group doesn't have a central leadership as such, so we can't expect formal position statement. And a main difference between a dog whistle and an order is (im)plausible deniability. Saying "whup those idjits" is an order; saying "Jeez, wouldn't it be beautiful if those idjits got whupped?" is a dog whistle, because afterwards one can say it was hyperbole or sarcasm or a joke. Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 13:49
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    @Brondahl: the aim of a dog whistle in the human sense isn't to make a sound that some people can't hear, but to make a statement that encourages a particular behavior while allowing the speaker to deny that he was encouraging that behavior. E.g., back a couple of election cycles, a number of conservative pundits started drawing cross-hairs over pictures of liberal politicians and displaying them on national TV. They all swore themselves blue that they meant it as political targets, not assassination targets, but then G Giffords got shot in the head... I should edit this clarification in Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 14:02
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    A phrase can be a dog whistle even if it's used in private, just as a literal dog whistle exists even if there are no dogs in the vicinity when you blow it. When used to refer to phrases, it describes how they would be interpreted if made in public. The verb "dog whistling" then refers to the act of making such a statement in public.
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 15:11
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    The dog-whistle Wikipedia page has some nicer examples than "Stand By": attacking International Bankers and supporting States' Rights sound fine, but White Supremacists hear "Jews" and the US South hears "segregation". Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 15:35

The term "dog whistle" in politics is not clearly defined, so pretty much any interpretation is "arguable".

According to the Wikipedia article, the term originated in political polling, where researchers found that minor changes in wording could create large changes in response, because respondents were hearing something in the question that the researchers were not.

An example in the US used to be "family values" which the Christian Right tended to hear as traditional values on sex and relationships but everyone else heard as just a glittering generality. But these days everyone knows the coded meaning so its not a dog whistle any more. In the UK "foreigner" or "immigrant" tends to be heard by racists as "non-white" while everyone else hears the literal meaning.

Trump's "stand back and stand by" does not seem to be coded at all; it was a clear and specific instruction to a specific group. Everyone could hear it, so it wasn't a dog whistle.

On "keep your powder dry"; this is a metaphor. It means that you shouldn't waste your political ammunition by using it too early. In the Mitch McConnell quote he is advising the members not to make public statements about the issue early on, presumably because this would give the opposition time to respond and make their views "old news" by the time a vote came along. Instead they should wait for the time when their statements would have the maximum impact. This was not a coded statement, so it wasn't a dog-whistle.

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    Agree that these phrases aren't subtle or deniable enough to qualify as dog whistles: they are explicit. Though "keep your powder dry" has a lot of currency in the sense of "don't lose control" without, in my familiarity with it, meaning "get ready for imminent action". Now, "stand by" does mean to remain ready for further instructions.
    – CCTO
    Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 13:51
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    @CCTO To me, "keep your powder dry", is entirely about being prepared for action in the near future, but not the immediate future. Once powder is loaded in the musket (ready for use in immediate future?), it doesn't take long before you can't rely on it actually firing. Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 13:57

It wasn't a dog whistle, it was merely a flubbed attempt to say 'stand down' as Chris Wallace was attempting to get him to say.

In interviews following the debate, Trump said,

I don't know who they are. I can only say they have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work.

So not only did he later correct himself and request that the Proud Boys stand down, but he confessed to not even knowing who they are. It is difficult to dog whistle at someone that you are not familiar with.

Additionally, he doubled down on his stance that he does not support white supremacists.

I've always denounced any form, any form of any of that.

In fact, if you listen to the debate in question, when asked to condemn white supremacists he says "sure" twice, then says he will call them whatever Wallace wants.

Here is a BBC article that goes in depth about the issue.

The people who were supposed to have heard the dog whistle did not interpret it as a dog whistle.

On his Get Off My Lawn podcast, Gavin McInnes - the leader of the Proud Boys - claimed that Trump did not speak for them. His guest said the General of the Proud Boys gave an order, to which McInnes responded,

I control the Proud Boys, Donald! Do not stand down, do not stand back!

It seems like even the Proud Boys heard Trump's misspeak as an attempt to tell them to stop their activities, so even if it was an attempt to dog whistle them, it was unsuccessful.

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    All other things aside, I find the claim that Trump has not heard of the Proud Boys to be dubious as many of his advisors have met with their chairman. While that's not the best of sources, and taking a photo with someone doesn't necessarily mean anything, it does make me doubt his claim of not knowing who they are. Commented Oct 2, 2020 at 21:09
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    This answer attempts to reconstruct Trump's position by assuming some things to be "mis-speaks" and others to be saying what he actually means. Given Trump's historical record of saying multiple contradictory things at different times you could ascribe pretty much any political position to him simply by cherry-picking the right quotes. Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 9:27
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    It should be noted... that Gavin is co-founder of proud boys. Another co-founder... isn't white. He also leads Latinos for Trump. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enrique_Tarrio
    – WernerCD
    Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 21:03
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    This answer disingenuously neglects to address or account for 45's narrative unreliability. (Though if the controversy were about Washington or Lincoln it might be a good answer.)
    – agc
    Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 22:24
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    @PaulJohnson I do not attempt to reconstruct Trump's position - he has on many occasions come out against white supremacy. Knowing his position on the matter makes it easy to see that his words in the debate were simply a misspeak.
    – BlackThorn
    Commented Oct 5, 2020 at 15:35

Can "keep your powder dry" or "Stand back and standby" be said to be examples of "dog whistles" in these political contexts?

Short Answer:
To say either statement is a dog whistle is to diminish and obfuscate the statements by casting doubt on terms who's meaning is plain. If I told followers best known for violently confrontations with people who disagree with them, (Charlottesville Va, Seattle ) to stay ready. It can only be taken as a threat, there is no non-audible component to that message.

detailed Answer:
Dog whistle as stated by other answers is a signal audible only to a dog. Humans can't hear it.

The statement "stand back and stand by" is literally a threat by Trump to the people outside the addressed group. He's literally telling this group to stand ready to take action. There is no alternative meaning!

Likewise. Keep your powered dry, is advice officers give their troops prior to a battle, because wet powder doesn't fire. It's is literally a call for these followers to stand ready to demonstrate, intimidate or to commit violence as was done at Charlottesville and Seattle.

It's not defendable to call either comment a dog whistle, given the meaning of both statements are clear and addressed to a group associated with brawling and violence against their detractors.

If it was a dog whistle Trump would not have said it. The message wasn't meant for the group the "proud boys" who's members rank likely only a few hundred. The message was meant for the proud boy's critics, to cast fear, intimidate, and generally dissuade folks from participating in the election. No Dog Whistle.

  • Thanks for your concise, logical and clear answer! I had to stop and think about "non-audible" for a few seconds but yes this perfect usage in this context :-)
    – uhoh
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 23:43

When deciding on the meaning to attribute to his choice of words, you also need to at the specific words used in the debate up to that point:

Chris Wallace: (41:33) You have repeatedly criticized the vice president for not specifically calling out Antifa and other left wing extremist groups. But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia group and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.

President Donald J. Trump: (42:18) Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem this is a left wing…

I don't think Trump's much in need of dog whistles by this point. Everyone can pretty much hear him loud and clear. His reluctance to condemn white supremacists speaks volumes and his disclaimer later that he did know who Proud Boys were seems insincere, to say the least.

But the words used by Wallace would pretty much prime someone to use some variation on "stand down/by/back", which is the object of this question.

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