The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ‘silent majority’ isn’t a majority, and it’s far from silent

But the rhetoric lays the groundwork for crying foul when the true majority wins.

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Monday, Dan Scavino, the White House’s deputy chief of staff for communications, tweeted out an image of two icebergs, side-by-side. Above the waterline, they look identical. The iceberg on the left, labeled “Trump 2016 Silent Majority,” is much larger beneath the waves than above them, naturally — but it’s nothing compared to the iceberg on the right, labeled “Trump 2020 Silent Majority.” The below-water portion of that one is beyond massive, expanding mountainously out of the image frame.

The choice of metaphor invites some questions. To some eyes, it might imply that something beloved and valuable — the country, perhaps? — is going to crash into Trump 2020 in a catastrophic and historically unprecedented way. But Scavino’s intent, of course, was to pound home the administration’s theme that millions of voters the media and pollsters are ignoring will rescue the president in November.

The phrase “silent majority,” borrowed from President Richard M. Nixon, is a very strange one to apply to Trump supporters. First, Trump failed to attract a majority of voters even in his surprising 2016 performance: Hillary Clinton beat him by 2.9 million votes, and he achieved a majority only in the electoral college, an undemocratic institution. Second, Trump’s base — the minority of Americans who do strongly support him — are anything but silent in their enthusiasm.

The Trump team’s declaration that a silent majority lurks, ready to return Trump to the White House, is at odds with almost everything else the president says and does. His efforts to make it harder to vote by opposing voting by mail in the middle of a pandemic, and his repeated claims that Democrats are plotting election fraud, suggest a distinct nervousness about the majority’s true will. He appears to be laying the groundwork for explaining away a Democratic victory in November, as the result of deception and trickery. On June 22 he tweeted, in typical fashion: “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” In a system where success usually depends on grasping what a majority of the electorate wants, the sound strategy might be to reach out from one’s base to voters in the middle. Trump instead is heavily invested in the assumption that his enthusiastic minority will determine the outcome — even if it means that the people who don’t like him are prevented from voting.

The rhetoric serves a purpose. Even a few hardcore Trump supporters must be wondering now about the 13.3 percent unemployment rate, for example. By assuring his core supporters that they represent a large, cohesive group of Americans who share similar grievances — and, more importantly, common enemies, notably Democrats and the media — he helps to keep his base in line. Silent-majority rhetoric makes the grievances seem more legitimate.

Trump’s gambit for the election, in the face of falling support, is to convince the extremists that they are the true voice of the nation, even though every bit of empirical evidence indicates otherwise. He’s gaslighting his base. That explains why he’s still brandishing county-level maps of the 2016 electoral college results drenched in red and relying on misinterpretation to make it look like a mandate. (Trump won a majority of America’s acres, not votes.) Trump’s core supporters don’t need overwhelming evidence that they’re a majority to believe it; they just need to see a few good omens to maintain the faith.

This belief also primes them to follow Trump’s lead, should he assert, in the face of a November loss, that the election was illegitimate. If his supporters believe the only true democratic result is one that results in Trump’s reelection, they are more likely to back his attempts to subvert the system that produced it, possibly extending to rejecting the electoral process wholesale and refusing to leave office.

“Silent majority” rhetoric is one of the many things Trump has plagiarized from Nixon, a figure with whom he bizarrely self-identifies — despite’s Nixon’s ignominious exit from office. (He may be partly attracted by the notoriety itself; he may also be drawn to his disgraced predecessor because he’s been influenced by Nixon-connected advisers from Roger Stone to Roy Cohn.) Nixon most famously used the phrase “silent majority” in a November 1969 address to the nation, in which he made the case that people protesting the Vietnam War were a vocal minority; while most of America was not expressing this view in the streets, they agreed with the administration’s position on the conflict. Of antiwar protesters, he said: “One of the strengths of our free society is that any American has a right to reach that conclusion and to advocate that point of view. But as president of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this nation to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street.”

But Nixon actually had a majority, or at least a plurality, of people who agreed with him on the issue of Vietnam — and about the unrest that beset American cities in the late 1960s and early ’70s. A Gallup poll taken right after the 1968 Democratic Convention found that 47 percent of voters thought Nixon would do a better job of handling the war than his rival for the presidency, Hubert Humphrey; only 28 percent said Humphrey would do better. And by 1970, 69 percent told Harris pollsters they agreed with Vice President Spiro Agnew’s statement that he wanted “to see anti-Vietnam and student demonstrators cracked down on.”

Trump, by contrast, does not benefit from either the presumption of competence or anti-protester sentiment. A recent Reuters-Ipsos poll puts presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden significantly ahead of Trump, with 50 percent saying they’d vote for Biden, compared with 36 percent for Trump. Biden leads even in six battleground states Trump won in 2016 (and by as much as 11 points in Michigan and Wisconsin). With those numbers, it’s unlikely that even the electoral college advantage would hand Trump a victory.

Trump’s approval ratings are at 41 percent, which is where they’ve largely hovered since he took office (but still on the lower end of his range). His attempts to boost those numbers by deploying another Nixon trope, calls for “law and order,” in the face of national protests against police brutality, backfired too. This is not 1968: 74 percent of Americans support the protests, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll. Trump’s tone-deaf handling of the protests — and the administration’s bumbling, incompetent coronavirus response — has driven Biden’s lead up since May (when he led Trump 47 percent to 42 percent).

Trump’s base seems less secure than it was four years ago. Like Nixon, he dominates among non-college-educated white men, but his support among non-college-educated white women has dropped 11 percentage points, according to an ABC-Washington Post survey. That could reduce his overall share of the vote by as much as 2.5 percent. And insofar as Trump has truly “silent” support — voters who are unlikely to turn up at a rally but will vote for him — that seems to be eroding, too. Defections by suburban women, for example, help explain why Trump trails Biden among women overall by fully 23 points.

Given numbers like that, the only path to victory for Trump is by necessity one that relies on fundamentally anti-democratic structural flaws in our republic. To some extent, this is a continuation of long-standing Republican efforts to limit voting rather than expand it. The GOP has not hesitated to use gerrymandering and voter suppression to achieve artificial pluralities, and party members covered their eyes and ears when the president openly solicited foreign interference in our elections. Republicans are again banking on the regional and demographic biases of the electoral college, which overweights rural voters at the expense of city residents.

For Trump, every enemy is simultaneously terrifying and incompetent

Without such anti-majoritarian actions and institutions, Trump is unlikely to win. Without them, he wouldn’t have won in 2016, either.

Trump is so focused on his base that he is blind to easy ways to expand his popularity; he’s utterly out of sync with majority views. He will not wear a mask, although mask wearing is supported by 75 percent of Americans. He derides the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, conflating protesters with looters, despite the fact that 69 percent of Americans think George Floyd’s killing was not an isolated incident but representative of larger problems with law enforcement and only 27 percent of voters think protester violence is a bigger problem than police violence.

The only thing he has left is a vocal bunch of die-hards — a group he must keep feeding with reassurances that they’re winning, because their primary grievance is they feel like they’re not. And since they know that without Trump they do not stay in power, they have an incentive to buy into the lie.

But the gaslighting will not produce the outcome Trump wants. The math isn’t there. And if voter suppression or other means somehow does lead to a Trump victory, we’d be in a nightmare scenario even Nixon didn’t want. “If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over the reason and will of the majority,” he said in that November 1969 address, “this nation has no future as a free society.”