In late October 1969, Richard Nixon took out one of his famous yellow legal pads to jot down some thoughts. The new president was faced with serious global and domestic turmoil. The Soviet Union had initiated a nuclear buildup, the Middle East was aflame (some things never change), and the war in Vietnam raged on. At home, the war drove hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets, convulsing a nation already seething from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and a growing countercultural movement.
Mr. Nixon reached for a way to calm the roiling waters and to buy time for his new policies — detente with the Soviet Union, rapprochement with China, a new approach to prosecuting the war — to be established and implemented.
He sat down in the middle of the night and wrote what would become his most famous phrase: “And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support.”
Those words became the centerpiece of a critically important speech he gave on Nov. 3, 1969, in which he appealed for the public’s patience on Vietnam. And he got it because so many regular, hardworking, patriotic Americans saw themselves in his phrase. They saw a small but vocal left-wing, anti-war rabble seizing headlines, confronting police, shutting down universities, causing a breakdown of respect for authority and social order, while they — the people who made America work every day — were overlooked, dismissed, disrespected along with the country they loved
With that phrase, Mr. Nixon gave them attention and respect, and they rewarded him with re-election and steady support for his policies.
Of the many smart moves Donald Trump has made during his campaign, one of the most impactful was his appropriation of Mr. Nixon’s phrase. At a campaign rally last July in Phoenix, he said, “The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take our country back.”
After that, “the silent majority” appeared on Trump campaign placards, waved by thousands at his rallies. (He has also successfully appropriated President Reagan’s 1980 slogan “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Both phrases appeal to the countless Americans who feel their country and its historic, unique greatness have been lost to radicalism and other diseases of the pathological left.)
An open question is whether, after decades of assault by the left, there is still a “great silent majority” left in America. Or have the radicals succeeded in turning those who believe in the founding principles of limited government, individual freedom and traditional values into the minority?
The answer may be unclear for now. But Mr. Trump is banking on the continued existence of the majority — while at the same time working to reconstitute it for the 21st century.
Ever the communications master, Mr. Trump speaks directly to these Americans in ways to which they can relate. Despite his net worth in the billions of dollars, he speaks like a guy from Queens, N.Y. — because he’s a guy from Queens, N.Y. He is raw and authentic. He is one of them. They know it — but more importantly, they feel it.
He also speaks to them about the issues that directly affect their livelihoods: an interminably poor jobs outlook, illegal immigration and bad trade deals. He tells them that he understands their plight. He tells them that if they stand with him, he will fix it and that he will not betray them. They believe in him.
Mr. Nixon understood the need to offer them reassurance and hope. So does Mr. Trump.
Even the upheavals they faced look similar. At a recent Trump rally in Albuquerque, N.M., an anti-Trump protest degenerated into a riot when agitators attacked the police, injuring several officers (no surprise given the left’s war on cops). Two groups had a hand in organizing the protests — Southwest Organizing Project and Progress Now New Mexico. Some unions were involved as well.
This is the professional left whose aim is to sow chaos and violence in order to facilitate the tear-down of the existing order. They have been at this for decades and are quite good at it. One of the ringleaders of the violent anti-Trump protests in Chicago in March? Sixties Marxist revolutionary and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. The anti-Vietnam protests, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter: It’s all the same organized, well-financed leftist revolution, led by many of the same radicals.
By identifying the “great silent majority,” Mr. Nixon told good, decent, law-abiding Americans that help was on the way, because he was one of them.
In using the same phrase, Mr. Trump is signaling the same thing. It’s a powerful political sentiment. But more importantly, it’s a potent emotional sentiment, which both men have used to great effect — because they believed it. And because they believed in the American people to whom it was directed.
The silent majority carried Mr. Nixon to election and re-election. I suspect that it is prepared to do the same for Mr. Trump.
• Monica Crowley is editor of online opinion at The Washington Times.