Alt-Signaling: Fascistic Communication and the Power of Subterranean Style

From the Series: American Fascism

A view of the crowd northeast of the Washington Monument, shortly before President Trump's speech, January 6, 2021. Photo by Gregory Starrett.

Fascism is recognizable partly through its rhetorical modes of acquiring and retaining power, its cluster of persuasive methods with a family resemblance (cf. Stanley 2018). Over the last five years, Trump and his acolytes have generated propaganda with a fascistic bent, using techniques that include

  • Stoking the notion that the white majority are a precariat in decline, imperiled by enemies (minorities, immigrants, the political left)
  • Fomenting lies by targeting and destabilizing expertise and intellectualism, while playing up myths and conspiracy theories
  • Emplotting a future in which that white majority, mobilized behind a patriarchal leader, reclaims its dominance, using suppression and violence if needed

Trump’s tweets and rhetoric have been saturated with these methods (see McIntosh and Mendoza-Denton 2020a), from racist fear mongering, to the catch phrase of “fake news,” to the pugilistic rhetoric that incited his “army” of supporters on January 6, 2021. But stoking white supremacy while creating fantastic untruths in a putative liberal democracy has made for some intriguing communicative dynamics. Trump has intuited that at least some of his fascistic messaging must come onto the scene in veiled or plausibly deniable form.

I focus here on a dynamic I call “alt-signaling” (see McIntosh and Mendoza-Denton 2020b), associated with Trump’s communicative techniques and extended by his followers. Alt-signaling is characterized by a kind of mirroring between form and content, where allusions to sinister, illicit, or conspiratorial dynamics (whether those projected onto the left, or those plotted by the right) are couched in semiotically indirect, ambiguous, or cryptic forms. The motives for the subterfuge appear to be several, including evading detection or skirting accusations by enemies. But I suggest the form of alt-signaling can also feed the power of the myths it buys into, magnifying the sense of threat while enacting the thrilling fantasy of the subterranean fascistic state-in-waiting.

We have seen variants of alt-signaling for a number of years, as among American fascists who have strategically claimed that their dangerous words are not to be taken seriously. After famously ending a speech by shouting “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory” into an auditorium of Nazi salutes, the white supremacist Richard Spencer contended he had done so in a “spirit of irony and exuberance.” Some neo-Nazi websites urge their posters to use a light tone so that the “unindoctrinated” reader can’t tell whether they’re joking (Kakutani 2018, 158–59).

Well-known forms of Trumpian alt-signaling include so-called dog whistles that can seem benign to some listeners yet excite white supremacists with thinly veiled racist allusions, and his tendency to walk back his own innuendo or controversial remarks as “just words,” “sarcasm,” or “joking”—most famously, “locker-room talk.” Sometimes, Trump has used cryptic alt-signaling to stoke fear of the dastardly left. At a press conference in May 2020, he alluded to “Obamagate” with conspiratorial yet vague references to “terrible things” and “crimes” beneath the facade of the Obama administration. In August 2020, Trump told FoxNews’ Laura Ingraham that Biden was being controlled by “people in the dark shadows,” “people that are controlling the streets,” and mysterious “thugs” wearing black uniforms on a plane—innuendo that left his listenership to fill in the blanks with the fantasized menace of their choosing.

Through the hyperbolic escalation of this signaling strategy, Trump’s base has imagined him to be engaging in more communicative subterfuge than he actually has. In the months leading up to January 6, 2021, some critical mass of Trumpists believed he was signaling to them about the evil deep state through the encrypted messages of “Q,” the mysterious supposed governmental insider with high-level security clearance. Q fed the idea Trump was battling a satanic cabal of deep-state Democrats, but that he and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn were orchestrating a grand and violent denouement—“the Storm”—that would invoke martial law to arrest and execute them.

In the run-up to the election, “Q-drop” messages on social media grew increasingly cryptic and tantalizing, as Q encouraged apophenia (the perception of patterns among random signs; Lepselter 2016) by repeatedly asking, “Do you believe in coincidences?” Followers thus pored over Q’s gnostrums and random-looking character strings. They engaged in a kind of folk numerology, seeking correspondences between Q’s posts and Trump’s or Flynn’s Twitter time stamps. They tried to decrypt the first letters of each of Trump’s words in relation to Q-drops.

In turn, Q-aficionados liked to issue prophetic intimations of violence using affectively potent but referentially baggy signifiers. Their tweets adopted a foreboding, resolute quality—“Stay calm,” “Nothing can stop what’s going to happen”—statements that inspired bravado while remaining flexible in response to disappointment since they never stated precisely what would come when. Some would tweet a simple hammer or explosion emoji. One frequent tweeter liked to post what his followers (using a military idiom) called a “muster sign,” in the form of a single period, a kind of roll call. His followers would type a single period in response, a signal that they were at the ready to assemble.

The resonance between cryptic form and sinister meaning (both the evil of the left and the militaristic scheming of the right) seems to have given affective reinforcement to Trump’s followers’ view of the world. They’ve interpellated their enemies as so untrustworthy, so dangerous, that they themselves must communicate in hiding. At the same time, the secrecy of Q’s encryptions and their own offer the frisson of underlying truths either terrible (the Dems’ evil) or grand (their future reign and potency), stoking confidence in the cause. The fantasy in the very forms of alt-signaling seems to be part of fascism’s power to enthrall.

After the election, when each of Q’s oracular predictions failed to come through, followers insisted that Trump was still “5 steps ahead” or “playing 6D chess,” urging one another to “Trust the plan.” On Jan 13th, after being impeached by the House for inciting insurrection, Trump delivered an Oval Office statement that “no true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence.” Undeterred, some QAnon supporters contended that they could read Morse Code in the beats of his hand gestures, which ostensibly spelled out dash-dash-dot-dash: the letter Q. They weren’t wrong to suspect Trump’s statement shouldn’t be taken at face value. But alt-signaling also sets the conditions for a kind of infinite survival: when anything can be read into the leader’s signs, almost no claim about him can be falsified.


Kakutani, Michiko. 2018. The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump. New York: Tim Duggan Books.

Lepselter, Susan. 2016. The Resonance of Unseen Things: Poetics, Power, Captivity, and UFOs in the American Uncanny. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

McIntosh, Janet, and Norma Mendoza-Denton, eds. 2020a. Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2020b. “Alt-Signaling: White Violence, Military Fantasies and Racial Stock in Trump’s America.” Invited talk for the workshop series, “Talking Politics,” organized by the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Communication and Society (CSCS) and University of Colorado Boulder’s Culture, Language, and Social Practice (CLASP), November 16.

Stanley, Jason. 2018. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House.