In his first year in office, Richard Nixon coined the phrase “silent majority” to indicate the many who, he contended, quietly supported his continued prosecution of the Vietnam War against the noisy activists who marched in the streets against it.
Nixon had a good deal more in mind than the war. He had been narrowly elected president after the most contentious two years the country had experienced since the Civil War. Major American cities — Detroit, Newark, Baltimore, Washington — had been set ablaze, and Chicago convulsed by violence during the Democratic National Convention that had followed the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. African-American leaders — Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton — continued to be slain. When sworn into office, Nixon appeared to be inheriting a country being torn apart.
America was riven in the late 1960s for good reason. The genocidal war in Vietnam dragged on — Nixon would soon escalate it into Cambodia and Laos — and the demand for civil rights, frustrated since the days of Reconstruction, had finally mounted its first sustained challenge to Jim Crow racism in a century. The best of a new generation marched, and bled, to hold the country to its professed ideals.
Nixon represented the backlash to this movement. He appealed frankly to the racism of an angry South, and the de facto segregation of the North. He tried to delay the defeat he understood to be inevitable in Vietnam, at what would be a cost of millions of lives.
His appeal, above all, was to fear — fear of change, fear of violence, and, ultimately, fear of justice.
His gamble was that those who dared not voice such fears openly would respond to a leader who offered them his aid and comfort, and that, whatever their number, they would be sufficient to form a base from which he could govern.
Over the past half century, Nixon’s gamble has paid off handsomely, if not for him personally then for his Republican successors, who have successfully exploited his strategy to manipulate the hopes and fears of a shifting coalition of aggrieved constituencies — Southern diehards, Christian Evangelicals, Appalachian farmers and miners, the Rust Belt unemployed — to keep Wall Street’s engine chugging. It was a brilliant performance, but by 2016 it had worn thin when a camp figure turned demagogue appeared to rescue the GOP’s fortunes. Donald Trump appealed to the same groups that Reagan and the two Bushes had, which would no longer fall for the same pitch that had left them poorer and angrier than ever. He did so by stirring that anger at a more direct and visceral level than anyone had seen in national politics since the worst days of nineteenth-century sectionalism. Donald Trump was the sum of all fears, resentments and hatreds. And he completed the transformation of the modern Republican Party: he remade it in his own image.
Trump captured the populist Republican coalition by telling it a thousand lies and one great half-truth: that it wasn’t morning in America as Ronald Reagan had told them, but pretty close to midnight.
Thus was forged what pundits refer to as the “base” — that great, amorphous beast slouching toward its illusory Bethlehem, blind in its prejudices and hatreds and furious in its rage. Hillary Clinton called its members the “deplorables,” people who could not be reached by truth or reason.
She estimated them at a fifth of the electorate, but, if one counts them as those who, through a year and a half of unprecedented scandal, deceit, warmongering, race-baiting and misogyny have held fast to their champion, it is more like 40 percent of it — enough, with voter suppression, the Electoral College, and Russian bots to have installed a minority president, and, as some have begun to realize, possibly enough to do so again.
Because Trump himself is such an outsized, not to say monstrous figure, the tendency is to view his loyalists in the same light, and to see the so-called base as a frightening, implacable horde. This isn’t the case. It is what it was before — a congeries of sad, frightened, bewildered men and women, looking in all the wrong places for the source of their betrayal. In our fascination with the caricature that the pundits have made of them, we have focused enormous attention on them, with extraordinarily little willingness to understand who and what they are.
We shouldn’t ignore Trump’s supporters, of course, but what the media and the political class have done in focusing on them almost exclusively is ignore the sizable majority of American voters who, from Trump’s first moment in power to the present, have steadfastly rejected him and all he represents. No one interviews them, does focus groups with them, or thinks to ask them what should be done to save the country from the dangerous clown who’s running it. We know, from one poll, that 56 percent of voters think Donald Trump has committed an impeachable offense. How many conclude that he should in fact be impeached? No one’s asking, but the question should be interesting. The Democratic Party has clearly decided that the subject of impeachment should not be raised in the fall elections, lest Trump’s angry base be angered further.
Instead, the emerging strategy — a sure loser — is to try to coddle and seduce the base, in hopes of peeling off a few contestable districts.
The result is that, this time around, the majority of the country actually is a silenced one.
Oh, sure, people gripe and groan obsessively about Trump, and no dinner party is complete without a rolling of eyes and a casting of runes for the fate of the Republic. But who’s marching in the streets these days? Schoolchildren, begging their grownups to keep their classrooms and playgrounds from being turned into killing fields. Who dares speak of what the vast majority of the country, including much of the base, says it wants: national health insurance, job and pension protections, affordable housing and decent public education, a living wage, gun laws?
These would be pitiable scraps of reform, not to say rights long taken for granted, just a few miles north in that utopia called Canada. They are the love whose name neither party dares to speak in America, except in the safest of liberal enclaves. And let’s not even think about a crumbling infrastructure, runaway monopolies, Third World levels of income inequality and a habitable future for the planet.
We had a terrible election two years ago between the two most unpopular political figures in the country. We could have an even more frustrating and fruitless one this time around.