In 1968, Richard Nixon used a nifty slogan that Donald Trump is desperate to revive: the silent majority. There was a powerful message behind it that resonated with white America, racist undertones aside. What Nixon was saying was that their safety, peace of mind, and power would be restored if he became president.
But what Nixon had – and what Donald Trump doesn’t – was a receptive plurality that could be turned into votes. A silent majority wasn’t just words, it was much closer to reality.
When the silent majority worked
There was at least a semblance of a silent majority for Richard Nixon in 1968. During that pivotal year, The Vietnam War was raging, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and a few months before him, Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, TN. This latter atrocity initiated countless violent protests across the United States that were broadcast into the homes of white America.
Some studies have shown that in 1968, these violent protests helped drive enough voters towards the law and order message of Richard Nixon. Counties that were in close proximity to a violent protest in April of 1968 saw a 1.6-1.8 point decrease in Democratic vote share. In one poll in August of 1967, 41% of Americans stated that “social control” was the most important issue facing the country.
On the surface, the political and social unrest in our present moment can seem to echo the riots and protests of 1968. The passive observer could then worry about a message of law and order and the silent majority resonating with Americans, as it did with Nixon. But when one looks deeper, there are striking differences between now and then. These differences show that not only does Trump not have a silent majority behind him, he has a unified coalition against him – and a loud minority backing him up.
America’s growing majority
Popular opinion has been moving towards liberals and the Democratic Party on several fronts. The Republican agenda has not been popular with large swaths of Americans, especially during the pandemic. We are not seeing the same tilt Richard Nixon saw in 1968 during times of social unrest.
In healthcare, a majority of Americans support having the Federal government do more to provide insurance. In March of last year, 55% said they worried a great deal about the availability and affordability of healthcare. A slim majority favor having a single-payer type system and using terms like universal healthcare and Medicare-for-all show even greater positive feelings among respondents.
On taxes, a majority of Americans believe that the wealthy should be paying their fair share. In one poll, 64% strongly or somewhat agreed that the wealthy should pay more. When you break it down by party, 77% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans – a majority – agreed as well.
The culture wars have been especially devastating for the conservative right. Same-sex marriage is not only legal, it has significant support among the American people. 6 in 10 favor transgender Americans serving in the military and a majority of Americans have become more supportive of transgender rights then six years ago.
The Black Lives Matter movement has also gained steam. An overwhelming majority of Americans support the BLM movement across racial and ethnic lines and a large plurality believes that Donald Trump has made race relations in this country worse, not better.
And no one should ever forget one important piece of evidence that there is no silent majority behind Trump: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million.
A crueler economy and a diversifying America
The reasons for these trends are long-winded and have been brewing well before Trump took office. The short answer is America is changing demographically and the American economy has not been as pristine as some might think.
Wealth inequality is at staggering levels and Americans are living through an affordability crisis. If faced with an unexpected $400 bill, 27% of Americans say they would need to sell something or borrow to cover it; 12% wouldn’t be able to pay it at all.
America is becoming more diverse every year and a majority of Americans are behind that. 58% say that having a more diverse country will make America a better place. To put it another way, diversity will make America great again.
Trump’s loud minority
Trump is many things, but a detail-orientated message crafter is not one of them. He is all instinct. Trump intuitively understands that the silent majority line worked for Nixon, and he’s hoping it will work for him. It won’t. It’s not 1968, it’s 2020. Today, when Trump looks back to see if his silent majority is with him, he will be disappointed. He’ll find his loud minority.
And in front of him will be the increasingly diverse, liberal, and egalitarian future generation of Americans, ready to confront him.