In a press conference after a rally in South Carolina on Thursday, Donald Trump insisted that there is a "silent majority [who] wants this country to have victories again."
It's not the first time Trump has used that phrase -- "silent majority." Before his Alabama rally last Friday, Trump tweeted this:
And, before Trump went to New Hampshire earlier this month, he tweeted this:
As far back as July, Trump was using the phrase. "The country is fed up with what's going on," he said at the time. "You know, in the old days they used the term 'silent majority.' We have the silent majority back, folks."
Trump's use of that term is 1) 100 percent on purpose and 2) decidedly controversial. For many, the "silent majority" is a not-so-subtle reference to white people who need/want to take "their" culture and country back. And, the argument goes, they would be taking it back from those who aren't white.
Trump, of course, insists he's doing nothing of the sort and that his use of the phrase is solely aimed at energizing and uniting voters who are sick of political correctness and, apparently, not "having victories."
It's very hard to know what Trump is really up to here. But it is worth exploring the origins of the "silent majority" and the controversy that has followed the phrase around for the past 45 years.
Richard Nixon first used the term in a speech on Nov. 3, 1969, that sought to explain to a country riven by war protests why he needed their support for his plan to end the conflict in Vietnam. His use of the phrase came in the closing of the speech when he said:
And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support. I pledged in my campaign for the presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge. The more support I can have from the American people, the sooner that pledge can be redeemed; for the more divided we are at home, the less likely the enemy is to negotiate in Paris.
It was seen by Nixon supporters as a populist call for conservatives to rally to his side amid the protests (and the counter-culture) movement that was growing in voice and support at the time.
But to Nixon detractors, the term, which Nixon had toyed with during the 1968 campaign -- often calling it the "forgotten majority" -- was racially coded language meant to rally whites against perceived encroaching threats to their culture and way of life.
Whatever phrase Nixon used, the concept always targeted the same group of whites arrayed from the working class through the middle class. At a time of tense race relations, ardent antiwar protests, and an accelerating sexual revolution, Nixon said he was speaking for "the millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly." In their influential 1970 book, The Real Majority, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg more succinctly described the "silent" constituency as "unyoung, unpoor, and unblack."
Historian Matthew Lassiter of the University of Michigan says that while Nixon was careful not to exclude minorities explicitly from the "silent majority," the concept "was implicitly white." Politically, Nixon's goal with the idea was to shift the basis of political alignment from economic class to cultural values, and, by so doing, dislodge from the Democratic coalition blue-collar and evangelical whites alienated by everything from school-busing to loosening sexual mores. "The genius of the phrase is it sought to erase the very real class and economic differences among different categories of white Americans by basically saying … 'You are all part of this same coalition,' " says Lassiter, author of the 2006 book The Silent Majority.
As Lassiter noted in a 2011 piece on the silent majority in the New York Times, "Nixon was always careful to say that black Americans were part of the silent majority, but his populist agenda targeted white voters who believed that the civil rights and antiwar movements had gone too far."
The idea of the silent majority -- that an overlooked people need to stand up and reclaim the values (typically conservative social values) that once made the country great -- is virtually embedded in Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.
Inherent in the phrase is that America was once great but is no longer. Trump's campaign anthem -- "We're Not Gonna Take It," by Twisted Sister -- speaks to that same idea of deep frustration and anger about the way things are going to in the country.
Like everything with Trump, trying to logically deduce his motive here will give you a headache. It's entirely possible he means it without any racial overtones -- aiming to unify people of all colors around the idea of the U.S. as a muscular tough guy around the world.
But there's little chance that Trump is unaware of the history of the phrase and its racial overtones. His continued use of it then can be read as the latest example of his unwillingness to bow to what he believes the gods of political correctness dictate.
When it comes to Trump, the more controversial, the better. His revivification of the "silent majority" certainly fits into that theme.