The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The violence at the root of the silent majority

A forgotten film shows the problem with continuing to invoke this mythical group.

Workers in New York City, angered by Mayor John Lindsay's apparent anti-Vietnam War sympathies, wave American flags as they march in a demonstration near City Hall on May 15, 1970. (AP Photo) (AP/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It has been more than 50 years since Richard Nixon conjured the category of the “silent majority” to separate his base of support from the urban rebellions and vocal liberation, countercultural and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s. As a phrase that symbolizes a reserved, white, predominantly working-class conservatism, its power as a rhetorical political tool endures even after a half-century of social and cultural change. Donald Trump recently took a page from Nixon’s playbook, tweeting both “LAW AND ORDER” and “THE VAST SILENT MAJORITY IS ALIVE AND WELL!” hoping to energize his reelection campaign and mostly white base of support after the largest anti-racism uprising in the country’s history.

But the silent majority is not just an electoral idea. It is also an enduring cultural trope. In fact, July marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “Joe,” a film that sought to capture and capitalize on seething political discontent among white conservatives. With a title that connoted the generic, white working-class everyman, “Joe” was the first of a number of films in the 1970s that suggested that authorities had failed to bring order after the rebellious 1960s. It may have faded from our cultural memory, but the film’s representation of volatile white racism and resentment echoes in our contemporary politics. It also highlights how swiftly popular culture can seize on and profit from political narratives.

For the filmmakers, title character Joe Curran, played by Peter Boyle, embodied the backlash against 1960s liberation movements and an ascendant status anxiety wrought by deindustrialization. The audience first encounters Curran about a third of the way into the movie enjoying a post-shift beer down at the tavern, where he pontificates on race and class to no one in particular. He is a silent majority stand-in who revels in bombast.

Curran’s sermon targets the perceived scapegoats of his predicament: the emergent racial “underclass” and the counterculture. He is loud and unsparing with the worst racial epithets and conjures a precursor to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.” Dog-whistling on affirmative action, Curran complains that his son was denied access to universities because of racial quotas. Yet he actually hates white college students more than African Americans and frequently fantasizes about killing “hippies.”

But he soon meets William Compton, a Manhattan business executive who has just murdered his daughter’s hippie boyfriend. Compton doesn’t use racial epithets the way Curran does, but he revels in his new friend’s innate bigotry. Their chance meeting commences a mutually beneficial cross-class relationship built on hate and vengeance. Eventually, fantasies of violence result in tragedy. Traveling to an upstate commune to kill hippies, Curran shoots and kills freely, while Compton only musters the courage in time to unknowingly murder his daughter. Given this climax, it is hard to see “Joe” as anything but a cautionary tale on the contingencies of hatred and difference in the 1960s. However, audience reactions and the actions of the filmmakers blurred the film’s message.

In part, this was a product of context. Tensions between the white working class and young antiwar protesters in New York City came to a head in early May 1970, as hundreds of college and high school students in downtown Manhattan demonstrated against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the massacre at Kent State University. Construction workers, laboring in the vicinity, converged on the crowd at lunchtime and began fulfilling Joe’s fantasy of preemptive violence upon young nonconformists.

In what became known as the “Hard Hat Riot” and subsequent demonstrations, white-collar workers from Wall Street also donned construction helmets and jumped into the fray. The Nixon administration, however, incorporated hard-hat imagery into the narrative of “a great silent majority” of quiet, patriotic Americans, not publicly airing its discontent or taking protestations to the street.

Practiced in the art of exploitation, the production company that made “Joe” — known previously for soft-core pornography — took advantage of the conflict and retitled and re-cut the film for quick release. Initially a supporting figure, Boyle’s character moved to the forefront just as the hard hats became the face of the conservative backlash. It was a rather astonishing choice, since Curran represented the absolute worst of purported blue-collar impulses: racism, sexism, ignorance, stupidity, hypocrisy and violence.

But many “Joe” viewers didn’t see this dark side. As with the Queens resident Archie Bunker, the era’s other bumbling bigot, the perceived condemnation of Curran’s ignorance and behavior garnered some audience sympathy. One elderly woman told Boyle that she appreciated his character’s lack of silence: “I agree with everything you said, young man. Someone should have said it a long time ago.” The lines she loved were Boyle’s racist improvisations based on interactions in his hometown, Philadelphia. Oddly enough, this exchange resonates a half-century later among supporters who laud Trump’s willingness “to tell it like it is,” code for voicing their racism, sexism and other prejudices (or as his critics put it, “saying the silent part out loud”).

Boyle insisted that the film both condemned the ideology of his character and had a “very plain” antiwar message. Reports that some viewers shouted, “I’m going to shoot back, Joe!” traumatized Boyle, a self-described “conservative radical” who received a “leftward” awakening at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In an interview published shortly after the film’s release, he equated the hard-hat rioters with Hitler’s “Brownshirts,” condemned the notorious racism of New York’s construction trades and acknowledged being “scared when I meet people like Joe.”

As a vigilante film, “Joe” inaugurated a genre that exploded onto screens in the 1970s. Films like “The French Connection” (1971) (a lead that Boyle subsequently turned down because of the response to “Joe”) and the iconic “Dirty Harry” (1971) and “Death Wish” (1974) franchises operated alongside the contemporary politics of “law and order” and helped reframe the debate over how to police the city. On film, police administrators loathed Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan’s vengeful and violent tactics, but to the audience he was a hero and an avatar for fighting the new “war on crime.”

From the start, the idea of the silent majority was grounded in violence, hatred and coded racism, sentiments perhaps most succinctly captured in Merle Haggard’s backlash anthem, “The Fightin Side of Me.” Nixon and other Republicans sought connection with those citizens who saw their counterparts’ rebelling in the streets as a symbol of disruption and disorder. Beyond political slogans and speeches, the entertainment industry provided a cultural landscape where actions, often violent, spoke louder than words, reinforcing an image of silent yet reactive white conservatism.

Vigilante films in particular served as fantasy vehicles for white resentment, as tales of audiences cheering body counts and encounters like Boyle’s confirm. In the uprisings that have followed the killing of George Floyd, footage of unprovoked police brutality against peaceful protesters, tactically outfitted “peacekeepers,” bat-wielding Philadelphians, gun-waving St. Louis lawyers and counterdemonstrators reenacting the killing of Floyd highlight the lasting power in American life of that fantasy — seeking community order via intimidation, terrorism and violence.

The productive alliance of working-class whites and corporate elites in “Joe” also echoes in the relationship between Donald Trump and his perceived silent majority. It is not hard to see Trump, who famously boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it, in the guise of William Compton. At one point Compton says his stewardship of Joe feels like “a humanitarian act,” a notion that reverberates in Trump’s paternalistic, narcissistic rhetoric. And his not-so-silent supporters seem, like Curran, more than willing to provide cover for authoritarian acts of discrimination and intimidation, if not act out violently when prodded.