Donald Trump gestures while meeting with the press at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.National Journal

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Is the "silent majority" ready to roar again? Donald Trump thinks so. At his big rally in Phoenix recently, the bombastic businessman insisted: "The 'silent majority' is back, and we are going to take the country back."

Donald Trump gestures while meeting with the press at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump's future in the GOP presidential race is uncertain after his churlish attacks on Senator John McCain of Arizona. But whatever happens to Trump, the strong positive response from many rank-and-file Republicans to his attacks on immigrants and free trade, and to his contempt for party leaders, has demonstrated the depth of alienation among much of the GOP base — particularly, blue-collar and older whites. With or without Trump, the party must still navigate the appeal of "Trump-ism" to disaffected voters who feel the country as they know it "is slipping away fast," notes Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

It's no coincidence the "silent majority" language is resurfacing amid a wave of cultural and demographic change — from the Supreme Court decision authorizing gay marriage to the Census Bureau finding that most kids under 5 in America are not white. The "silent majority" idea first entered the political dialogue during the tumultuous social, racial, and political tensions of the late 1960s. In his winning 1968 campaign, Richard Nixon floated several formulations — "the silent center," "quiet Americans," "forgotten Americans" — before settling on the "silent majority" in a November 1969 speech urging support for the Vietnam War. (That history is according to the late William Safire, who should know: Before he became our premier political lexicographer, he served as a Nixon speechwriter.)

Whatever phrase Nixon used, the concept always targeted the same group of whites arrayed from the working class through the middle class. At a time of tense race relations, ardent antiwar protests, and an accelerating sexual revolution, Nixon said he was speaking for "the millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly." In their influential 1970 book, The Real Majority, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg more succinctly described the "silent" constituency as "unyoung, unpoor, and unblack."

Historian Matthew Lassiter of the University of Michigan says that while Nixon was careful not to exclude minorities explicitly from the "silent majority," the concept "was implicitly white." Politically, Nixon's goal with the idea was to shift the basis of political alignment from economic class to cultural values, and, by so doing, dislodge from the Democratic coalition blue-collar and evangelical whites alienated by everything from school-busing to loosening sexual mores. "The genius of the phrase is it sought to erase the very real class and economic differences among different categories of white Americans by basically saying "¦ 'You are all part of this same coalition,'"Š" says Lassiter, author of the 2006 book The Silent Majority.

When Nixon coined the phrase, the culturally conservative non-college-educated white voters he mostly targeted legitimately composed the American majority. In Nixon's 1968 victory, whites without a college degree represented nearly 80 percent of voters, with college-educated whites accounting for just 13 percent and minorities the rest, the Census Bureau found. Scammon and Wattenberg were justified in describing the tipping-point American voter then as "a forty-seven-year-old housewife from the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, whose husband is a machinist."

Those days are gone. By 2012, according to Census figures, the slice of the electorate made up of whites without a college education had shrunk to 44 percent, while college-educated whites (who are typically more socially liberal) accounted for about three-in-10 voters, and minorities just over one-in-four. In media exit polls, the percentage of white voters without a college education was even lower.

Yet one reason Trump's "silent" constituency is so energized may be precisely because it is so obviously no longer the nation's "majority." Trump's rise has shown again that much of the GOP's base fears that immigration — and hurtling demographic and cultural change more broadly — is transforming America's identity, and eclipsing them in the process. In an ABC/Washington Post poll this week that found Trump holding a commanding lead among non-college-educated Republicans, almost as many Republican-leaning voters said immigration mostly weakened, rather than strengthened, the country.

Those attitudes explain why conservatives like Olsen believe Trump's challenge to the party won't fade even if his campaign does. Olsen is one of several prominent GOP thinkers who believe the party is more likely to reclaim the White House next year by winning over blue-collar white voters — particularly in Rust Belt battlegrounds — than by attracting Hispanic voters with support for immigration reform. To Olsen, that means that while the GOP must separate itself from Trump's most extreme anti-immigrant views, it "cannot be contemptuous of the idea that immigration is out of control."

Downplaying outreach to Hispanics and other minorities and betting almost solely on the shrinking white population for the party's electoral future would represent a huge gamble for Republicans. But the very loud response from Trump's embattled "silent majority" shows how fervently much of the GOP's base will resist any effort to realign the party's agenda to the contours of a rapidly changing America.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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