Richard Nixon introduced the latter term to the American people during another moment of ferment, one to which the current unrest has been compared. During the 1968 presidential campaign and into his first years in office, as anti-war demonstrations took place across the nation, Nixon sought to ostracize the protesters, painting them as radicals whose views did not reflect those of law-abiding Americans. The term, which he introduced in a speech in 1969, cut along racial lines: The leaders of the civil-rights movement had become prominent opponents of the war in Vietnam, where a disproportionate number of Black Americans were fighting and dying. Martin Luther King Jr. went so far as to discourage Black college students from enlisting.
Donald Trump borrowed from Nixon’s playbook during his presidential run in 2016. During a rally in Las Vegas early in his campaign, he villainized a protester by saying, “I would like to punch him in the face.” The rambunctious crowd cheered in response. In the months that followed, as his campaign stops continued to be disrupted, Trump turned the protesters into a useful foil: The roaring crowd was us; the demonstrators were them. They did not belong to the silent majority, whose prerogatives Trump intended to restore. Enterprising supporters even created signs: silent majority stands with trump. Months after the election, the signs were still available for purchase on Amazon, for the low price of $14.35, with positive reviews for the sturdiness of the paper.
Read: The emerging Republican majority, 50 years later
The specter of Nixon’s victory in 1968—and Trump’s in 2016—has haunted the George Floyd protests. By channeling Nixon once again, Trump clearly hopes to revive his political fortunes. Polling shows that a majority of Americans view the protests positively. Trump’s fractious response to the Floyd killing, coming on the heels of his administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic, seems to have left him badly damaged politically.
Yet Trump has seemed damaged before. Some fear that, in the privacy of the voting booth, the American electorate will back the status quo over the calls for change in the streets. As of this writing, the protests have remained outraged yet largely peaceful. What if they turn violent and support for the cause they are championing erodes? “THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER!!!” Trump tweeted in mid-June. But the silent majority need not be stronger than ever to reelect the president. Trump has to persuade only a small number of voters in a handful of midwestern states in order to win a second term.
My own view, having spent the past decade studying protest movements in the United States, is that we’ve always overestimated the power of the silent majority, and that we’re giving it too much credence now. Righteous, nonviolent demonstrations are a hallmark of a functioning democracy. They provide catharsis for the participants and show the nation at large that something is wrong with our society and needs to change. Protests can also spark that change, by channeling energy, resources, and votes to candidates who take up the cause. Even 1968, the year that supposedly proves the risk of backlash, fails as an example if we consider the presidential race alongside the congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral contests that year, which swept reform-minded politicians into office.