“If you look throughout the heartland,” Bustos claimed, “there’s a silent majority who just wants normalcy, just wants to see that people are going to go out to Washington and fight for them in a civil way and get something done.”
But Bustos is wrong. The silent-majority concept is inextricably intertwined with backlash politics of the sort promoted by Trump. The concept was perhaps best explained by historian Rick Perlstein, who described the silent majority not in terms of demographics but emotion: “a feeling of dispossession,” especially in times of great change. While Democratic presidential candidates seem to think that hammering away at Trump’s incivility will damage his popularity in “middle America,” these attacks only bolster his appeal to the silent majority. This voting bloc sees such criticism as an attempt to silence Trump and, by proxy, them.
That sense of embattled disaffection has been a defining feature of the silent majority from the beginning. The goal of reaching the “great silent majority” animated Nixon’s efforts during the 1970 midterm campaign, as he attempted to lure disaffected white Democrats into the Republican fold. Just days before the election, Nixon thrilled an Arizona crowd with his trademark tough talk, fuming against “the haters” and asserting, “The time has come for the great silent majority of Americans of all ages, of every political persuasion, to stand up and be counted against appeasement of the rock throwers and the obscenity shouters in America.”
But this hard-line rhetoric, and a lurch to the right on social and racial issues that accompanied it, fell short. Rather than gain seats in Congress, Nixon watched several coveted seats fall to the Democrats. The losses punctured his claim that a new majority had just been waiting for a politician to speak to them. In retrospect, even Nixon admitted the approach went “too far overboard.” In the weeks following the election, Nixon’s staff scrambled to explain the poor showing and the shortcomings of his “law and order” appeal to America.
But that didn’t mean abandoning the concept of a silent majority. Instead, a battle ensued within the Nixon administration over the best way to capitalize on the idea. Aide Kevin Phillips continued to see political opportunity in an appeal to those voters who were revolting against the excesses and the rights movements of the 1960s.
“Young policemen, truck drivers, and steelworkers,” whom Nixon sought to include in his constituency along with Sun Belt suburban voters, “lean toward a kind of hippie stomping, anti-intellectual, social ‘conservatism’ in the [Gov.] George Wallace vein,” Phillips argued.
Capturing this population would enable Nixon to carve out a new political majority. From Phillips’s perspective, the road map to doing so involved attacking young leftists but also opposing civil rights legislation and channeling racist resentments to win working-class white voters from the Democratic Party. As he claimed in his influential book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.” Phillips’s perspective garnered important conservative adherents within the White House such as Tom Huston and Pat Buchanan.
Not all of Nixon’s aides, however, agreed with Phillips’s assessment. A revealing memo from future senator Daniel P. Moynihan laid out the countervailing arguments made in the White House. Moynihan, a Democrat in a Republican administration, understood the potential of backlash politics and encouraged Nixon’s attacks on countercultural permissiveness. He even agreed with Phillips that the “politics of the radical left … are a form of upper-class aggression.”
But while Moynihan embraced a populist vision of a bitter silent majority, he maintained that reaching these voters required finesse and demanded a positive intellectual defense of their traditions. To Moynihan, “The silent majority is silent because it has nothing to say.” An “adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation” left this majority with no response to the challenges to capitalism and traditional values raised by the “authoritarian Left.” Though Nixon might have had “more troops,” Moynihan conceded “the other side has more firepower. Infinitely more.”
Like Phillips, Moynihan thought better communication was key to capturing the silent majority. Instead of the bellicose “hippie stomping” conservatism advocated by Phillips, however, he wanted to see effective, outspoken communicators advocating for “moderation, decency, common sense, restrained ambition, attainable goals, comprehensible policies.” Put bluntly, Moynihan argued “the administration needs more class among its supporters.” Nonetheless, even Moynihan’s more measured conception had real limits, especially when it came to race: He supported Nixon’s targeting of “black militants” and “racial extremists.”
To some extent, Nixon heeded Moynihan’s warning, softening his rhetoric and creating a robust effort to reach out to black voters and an “Open Door” youth initiative that included a White House Youth Conference, a surprisingly widespread Young Voters for the President organization and policy efforts on issues important to young voters, such as the environment and the draft.
But Nixon still indulged in plenty of Phillips-style bromides. The president branded Democrats as unpatriotic, and his reelection campaign assailed his 1972 opponent George McGovern as the extremist candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion.” Nixon ordered the production of a hard-hitting advertisement about McGovern’s soft stance on draft dodgers, believing this sort of tough “law and order” rhetoric only threatened to “lose the Jewish young, that’s about all.”
While Nixon’s rhetoric was less over the top than Phillips might have favored, he still saw voters’ resentment toward the pervasive, stifling culture driven by “the Left” as a key strategy to reach the silent majority. His tactics revealed the commonalities between Moynihan and Phillips were more important than their differences. They both understood the silent majority as something inherently tied to white-working-class angst that elites were perpetuating new norms that constrained their ability to defend American values out of fear of being branded racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted.
If anything, this resentment has only grown stronger over the past half-century, which is why Trump’s appeals to his silent majority sounds a lot more like the pugilistic, anti-intellectual stuff Phillips dreamed of than Moynihan’s moderation or common sense.
The idea of the silent majority is something that conservative voters, who feel their values are under siege, have long been able to rally around. Most important, perhaps, these voters feel muzzled. As one Trump supporter complained, “The reason we’re silent is because we’re not allowed to talk.” He continued, “My favorite thing about Trump is that he wants to get rid of political correctness.”
This sense of marginalization is also why the left can’t co-opt the idea of a silent majority. After a Trump rally in July included supporters chanting “Send her back,” referring to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), CNN commentator Van Jones challenged the vision of a backlash-driven silent majority, claiming, “I think there’s a silent majority of people who have been getting increasingly uncomfortable with what Trump is up to.”
But Jones, Bustos and other Democrats looking to borrow the phrase to win over this crucial voting bloc have the same misconception as Moynihan: that the silent majority wants civility and sobriety. They overlook the fundamental role that race, resentment and alienation have played in why the silent-majority concept has stuck. While these voters are neither silent nor a majority, they feel as though they have been dictated to by a disproportionately powerful minority — and they want a champion willing to fight back against that minority, something Trump does with relish.