Frustrated with the resistance he faced at home, including from an increasingly assertive antiwar movement, Nixon made his most famous appeal. “So tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support,” he said. By this he was referring to the white working and middle classes of the nation’s heartland, the “non-shouters” and “non-demonstrators” he had invoked a year earlier at the Republican National Convention.
With what seemed like a mere throwaway line, Nixon gave birth to a moniker that quickly came to encapsulate the modern era’s burgeoning reactionary movement and has, in important respects, shaped political strategy for both major parties since. He recognized better than any of his modern predecessors that, in a deeply divided nation, Americans’ anger at their ideological opponents could be an effective tool of political mobilization. Nothing moves voters more than rage.
The reaction to Nixon’s speech was electric.
More than 72 million people — about a third of the country — had tuned in to the address, much greater than the number who watched Nixon’s inauguration, and about 400,000 letters, telegrams and postcards then came pouring into the White House. One from the right-wing hotbed of Orange County was typical. “I have just listened to your speech,” a young Californian wrote. “I decided that I have remained silent long enough.”
Why did the president’s glancing call for support in the final moments of a foreign policy speech resonate so deeply? Because with a single term, Nixon was able to masterfully exploit the racial and cultural divisions roiling the country.
Nixon understood that, by 1968, millions of white Americans detested what they saw as growing disrespect for authority and the American way. Civil rights developments looked to them like a zero-sum equation, with African American gains translating into white losses. And opposition to the Vietnam War challenged their patriotic convictions, as demonstrators questioned the Cold War consensus of the United States as a force for good. These millions of Americans resented both the mostly young, white protesters who had taken to the streets and the African Americans whose urban uprisings symbolized the era’s social ferment.
Nixon conjoined these two demographic groups, painting them as a violent, menacing threat to the political and racial status quo — and embodying the brimming fury among millions of his white compatriots. As one of his campaign advertisements put it, the “first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence.” It “hits it right on the nose,” Nixon reportedly said upon seeing the ad. “It’s all about those damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”
For him, the greatest civil rights victims of the late 1960s were not the African Americans who continued to face personal and structural barriers to equal citizenship, but the millions of law-abiding whites forced to endure unrest in the nation’s communities. In this way, Nixon neatly conflated the politics of resentment with the feeling of victimhood at the heart of many reactionaries’ sense of identity. Society was rapidly changing, and they wanted no part of it. These “forgotten Americans,” as Nixon called them, valued their all-white neighborhoods and schools, and they appreciated America’s defense of the free world.
So when Nixon promised “law and order,” he sent a message that he would stop these changes by silencing activists on college campuses and keeping America’s cities from burning. He earnestly worked to follow through on these promises while in office.
Just months after his November 1969 speech, he doubled down on this rhetoric. When Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on Kent State University student protesters — or “bums,” as the president had called campus radicals just days before — and police officers killed two students at Jackson State College, Nixon responded by asking, “What are we going to do to get more respect for the police from our young people?”
By the early 1970s, he had turned this sentiment into concrete policy through his newly announced war on drugs. Years later, John Ehrlichman, the Watergate co-conspirator who served faithfully as Nixon’s chief domestic aide, was explicit about the strategy, telling journalist Dan Baum in 1994:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/
In other words, the “silent majority” was about race, yes, but it was also about youth. Millions of patriotic Americans despised the young activists they saw on their television sets, viewing them as spoiled and elitist malcontents whose drug-induced protests were destroying the nation from within — while their non-college-going, working-class counterparts fought for the country in Vietnam. The fact that campus activists were often public university students subsidized by the taxes of hard-working Americans infuriated them even more. And they disliked the changes that both civil rights activists and students proposed to eradicate white supremacy from government and imperialism from U.S. foreign policy.
Today it is President Trump who is giving voice to this same white population. Like Nixon before him, Trump uses a celebration of the “silent majority” — it’s “back,” he declared in 2015 — to exploit the nation’s deep cultural and ideological divisions for political gain.
If anything, the feelings of alienation of this supposed majority — today, clearly a minority — may be even more pronounced than in 1969. Over the past five decades their incomes have stagnated or shrunk while jobs have moved overseas and corporate profits have soared. Their conservative religious beliefs have been challenged with the expansion of LGBTQ rights and other cultural changes. Their communities have been ravaged by the opioid crisis. And the complexion of their neighborhoods has often radically changed, with people of color, immigrants and refugees now living well outside the inner-city cores to which they once seemed confined. Maybe worst of all: They feel scorned and condescended to by what they perceive as a cultural elite.
The irony of the “silent majority” is that some of its anger comes from being a minority, as well as knowing it is losing the cultural battle slowly but surely. While politicians like Trump and Nixon have given these white Americans a political voice, their goal was largely selfish: stoking social divides to triumph politically — with great success, as evidenced by the way millions of Republicans continue to stick with Trump, regardless of his transgressions.
Although this might be a recipe for political victory, all it does is fracture the nation further while failing to address the problems that genuinely plague white Americans — and their nonwhite counterparts.
Trump was right. The “silent majority” is indeed back in 21st-century America. And although that might be good for him, it’s bad for the country.