The Last Hurrah of the “Silent Majority”?

Richard Nixon found electoral victory by appealing to the racial, economic, and moral anxieties of white Americans—a strategy Trump is seemingly trying to replicate. But will it work?

By Michael Javen Fortner

Tagged Donald TrumpRacismRepublican ConventionRepublicans

With audacity and grace, the “Mothers of the Movement” have reminded us of the humanity of their slain children and the inhumanity of the racist practices that took those innocent lives. Standing united at the Democratic National Convention, in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, these brave women spoke for the dead. They shared their heart-wrenching stories and exposed the ugly, real-life consequences of so-called “law and order.” Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in a jail cell after being arrested during a traffic stop, told us that when “a young black life is cut short, it’s not just a personal loss. It is a national loss. It is a loss that diminishes all of us.”

In some corners of the right, these earnest pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Fox News, talk radio, and their consumers never miss the chance to defend police brutality. Voicing the vitriol of a conservative fringe, Rudy Giuliani recently lectured black parents, telling them to “teach your children to be respectful to the police.” Of course, respect did not save Philando Castile’s life or the lives of many others. At the same time, the push for criminal justice reform has been embraced by many conservative intellectuals and officials. Many have begun to acknowledge that black lives have not mattered as much as their colorblind faith suggested they would. They realize that, as the leader of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, Newt Gingrich, admitted, whites “don’t understand being black in America.”

Almost a half century ago, crime was on the rise. Cities burned. Black and white activists stormed streets, campuses, and party conventions demanding equal rights and an end to the nation’s unjust war in Vietnam. Aghast at the violence and rebellion, many whites began to believe that a reckless, radical minority had turned their well-ordered American dream into a nightmare. Richard Nixon exploited the racial, economic, and moral anxieties of this “silent majority” to win the White House and forge the “New Right.” Today Donald Trump has embraced this strategy. This time around, however, it may not work.

“I am the law and order candidate,” the bombastic billionaire blustered at the Republican National Convention. Yet today, “law and order” feels like a threadbare trope. Despite the reality TV star’s call for “peace on our streets and the safety of our police,” we have never been safer. While homicides in Chicago and other communities should alarm us, crime is at historical lows. Although the slaughter of courageous police officers frays our collective sense of security, the number of those killed in the line of duty is nowhere near previous highs. These times certainly try our souls, but they’re nothing like the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Demographically, the electorate looks very different than it did then. Whites will no longer be a majority by 2043, and, in many counties, they are already outnumbered. Plus, there has been a backlash to the New Right strategy. No Republican nominee would have won the black vote, but explicit and implicit racial appeals have so alienated African American voters that Trump is polling zero percent among that demographic in key battleground states. Given that blacks outvoted whites for the first time in 2012, that’s a troubling sign for him. Adding insult to injury, Trump has decided to label Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists.” Not surprisingly, he’s currently polling between the mid-teens and low twenties among Latinos, far worse than either Mitt Romney or George W. Bush. There’s also the Muslim ban, and the winks and nods to anti-Semites and white supremacists.

To be clear, the dog whistles of Kevin Phillips, Lee Atwater, and other Republican strategists succeeded for decades. (It should be noted, however, that Phillips has long since moved to the left, while Atwater repented for his race-baiting as he faced death.) The GOP successfully used coded language to stoke the insecurities of working and middle-class whites in order to undermine organized labor, resist increases in the minimum wage, cut taxes for the wealthy, and tear a gaping hole in the social safety net. Party leaders appeased birtherism and courted the Tea Party in order to restore its congressional majority, stall the Obama agenda, and impose austerity on a nation suffering the ravages of the Great Recession.

Ironically, these policies have fragmented the “new Republican majority” that produced them.  The conservative assault on government exacerbated economic inequality and divided white America. Reaganomics gutted the middle class, and now poor and working-class whites, and their upper-middle-class and wealthy counterparts, inhabit different worlds.

Because of these cleavages, the Republican primary became a contest between the establishment—the uneasy coalition of upwardly mobile, Sunbelt evangelicals, new and old-moneyed Chamber of Commerce types, and trigger-happy neo-conservatives—and the angry base it cultivated. There’s a split between elites that favor military interventions and a constituency that wants neither to lose wars nor send their children to fight them. Whites without a college education tend to express less support for trade, immigration, and diversity than those with an undergraduate degree.

Nowhere are these tensions more apparent than in the area of criminal justice. Cities are not on fire, but the murder of black men at the hands of law enforcement has heightened tensions in many neighborhoods and reminded millions of the evils of Jim Crow. Black Lives Matter has forced an indifferent nation to confront the immorality of mass incarceration and the over-policing of people of color.

Well-heeled party regulars are finally grimacing at the racism they countenanced for so long. A dejected Jeb Bush declared that Trump does not reflect “the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party.” After hearing her nominee’s foreboding “law and order” address, Republican strategist Nicole Wallace, who introduced Sarah Palin to the world, lamented, “The Republican party…died in this room tonight.” That’s only partially true. A recent CNN/ORC poll showed Trump has expanded his lead among whites without a college degree. But he’s down among college-educated whites, a group Republicans have never lost.

Will Donald Trump win this election? At this point, no one can say. Maybe Sanders supporters still smarting from the demise of their revolution will vote third party, or not at all. Without Obama on the ticket, some African Americans might stay home. White and blue collar Republicans could unite once more to defend their American dream from incursions by a menacing “other.” On the other hand, the GOP is being consumed by xenophobia and its own inherent contradictions. This might just be the last hurrah of the white silent majority—its influence having been undercut by population shifts, neo-liberal policies, a backlash against reactionary Republican politics, historically low crime rates, the movement for black lives, and, finally, the fight for the fair administration of laws and a more just order.

Read more about Donald TrumpRacismRepublican ConventionRepublicans

Michael Javen Fortner is Assistant Professor and Academic Director of Urban Studies at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, City University of New York. He is also the author of Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (Harvard University Press).

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus