A few weeks ago, I went to a Donald Trump rally in suburban Philadelphia. Boisterous supporters lined the sidewalks, chanting “USA” and “Build That Wall.” Many of them also wore hats and T-shirts bearing an incongruous message, especially for such a noisy afternoon: “The Silent Majority Stands With Trump.”
That’s been a recurring theme in the campaign since last August, when Trump declared that “the Silent Majority is back.” Like the Donald himself, however, Trump backers are anything but silent. And that’s what differentiates them from the “Silent Majority” that Richard Nixon hailed in his famous 1969 address from the White House.
Nixon’s speech came on the heels of nationwide anti-war rallies, which posed one of the first big challenges to his new administration. A few weeks before the speech, millions of Americans took off from work or school to participate in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Life magazine called the anti-war movement “the largest expression of public dissent ever seen in this country.” According to Time, meanwhile, the protests were “an unmistakable sign to Richard Nixon that he must do more do end the war and faster.”
So Nixon delivered a major televised address, pledging to withdraw more American troops from Vietnam. But he also said the U.S. would keep fighting alongside our South Vietnamese allies until “peace with honor” could be achieved. And he pleaded with “the great silent majority” of Americans to support him, contrasting their quiet restraint with "mounting demonstrations in the street."
Years later, Nixon called this speech the best one he ever gave. Within a few months, his approval rating soared from 50 to 81 percent. Most remarkably, Time named “Middle America” as its “Man of the Year” for 1969. “In a time of dissent and ‘confrontation,’ the most striking new factor was the emergence of the so-called ‘Silent Majority’ as a powerfully assertive force in U.S. society,” the magazine observed.
Nixon had rehearsed these themes in his 1968 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, where he denounced protesters’ “tumult of shouting” and urged his audience to listen to a different kind of citizen. “It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators,” Nixon declared. “They’re good people. They’re decent people; they work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.”
You can hear some of this common-man rhetoric in the speeches of Donald Trump, who promises to restore Americans’ lost jobs and dignity. But Nixon—the son of a small-town California grocer—came by it more honestly than Trump, who has lived a life of almost unimaginable luxury. Resentful of Ivy-educated Easterners, Nixon instructed his staff to hire young people from Midwestern colleges. By contrast, Trump is a product of the University of Pennsylvania; three of his children graduated from Penn as well, while another went to Georgetown.
Most of all, though, Trump indulges in precisely the kind of angry, overheated language that Nixon condemned. Trump urged supporters at a rally to assault anyone who disrupted it, promising to pay the legal bills that resulted. Most notoriously, he also suggested that his minions might riot at the GOP convention if it did not nominate him.
And while Nixon’s rhetoric always had a coded racial appeal, Trump has made it explicit. Privately, Nixon’s speechwriters wrote that his Silent Majority included “Poles, Italians, Elks, and Rotarians”—that is, working- and middle-class whites—but excluded Jews, blacks, and young people. Trump has brought these kinds of bigotries into the open. His imagined majority is white to its core, buoyed by Trump’s attacks on immigrants and Muslims.
And there’s nothing silent about it, of course. Trump’s real achievement has been to free formerly quiet voters to express their real opinions, about immigration and Islam and much else. Witness his fulminations against “political correctness,” which urge supporters to give full rein to their darkest impulses. In these moments, they don’t resemble the humble and reserved citizenry that Richard Nixon envisioned. Indeed, they embody the violence and extremism that Nixon imputed to his own enemies.
“Silent Majority” was originally a euphemism for dead people, who will always outnumber the living. Richard Nixon gave the term a new meaning, to refer to forgotten average Americans. Maybe it’s time to return to the old definition, and to ask ourselves how we’ll be judged when we join the silent majority of the deceased. In part, the answer might rest on how we judge Donald Trump while we're still alive.