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What Is The 'Silent Majority?' Trump Supporters Weigh In


The silent majority is a phrase with a long history in politics. And those two words have been used a lot on the campaign trail by Donald Trump. NPR's Sam Sanders recently asked Trump supporters want silent majority means to them.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Trump says it everywhere.


DONALD TRUMP: The silent majority, have you all heard that?


TRUMP: There was a word - two words that used to be used a lot called silent majority. They stopped using them.


TRUMP: So you have a silent majority in this country that feels abused.

SANDERS: At a recent Trump rally in Clear Lake, Iowa, I asked some Trump supporters to define the phrase.

PATTY HUGHES: Silent majority are the people that mind their own business and don't depend on anyone else, don't expect anything from anybody, and they're just - they're kind of quiet. They don't go around bragging or they're not activists.

SANDERS: That was Patty Hughes from Indianola, Iowa. Her husband Larry put it like this.

LARRY HUGHES: They don't want anything free, but they don't want to be - stuff taken away from them either. And that's happening to us out here in the cheap seats.

SANDERS: Others said the silent majority was all about fiscal conservatism or disapproval of things like Planned Parenthood and anger with government gridlock. But this feeling is not new.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, first of all, it comes deeply from Richard Nixon's basic political orientation.

SANDERS: That's Rick Perlstein. He's a historian who's written several books about conservatism, including one called "Nixonland." Perlstein says Nixon really made the phrase popular in a speech on November, 3, 1969.


RICHARD NIXON: In San Francisco a few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators carrying signs reading lose in Vietnam. Bring the boys home.

SANDERS: Nixon said those protesters wouldn't change his mind on Vietnam. And at the end of the speech, he appealed to the rest of the country.

NIXON: And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support.

SANDERS: Rick Perlstein says Nixon was afraid that antiwar protesters had entered the mainstream, so he wanted to set them apart.

PERLSTEIN: The idea that there are two kinds of Americans, sort of the ordinary middle-class folks with the white picket fence who play by the rules and pay their taxes and don't protest.

SANDERS: The thing about silent majority is that it said just as much about who was in it as who was not.

PERLSTEIN: Black civil rights militants - it was feminists who were supposedly burning their bras, it was students who were smoking drugs, rock 'n' roll bands - it was everything that threatened that kind of 1950s "Leave It To Beaver" vision of what America was like before everything went, you know, literally and figuratively to pot.

SANDERS: A lot of Trump's supporters are older. Many of them actually lived through this. Perlstein also says the phrase silent majority can be racially coded.

PERLSTEIN: To say majority is to say minority. And everyone knows what minorities are. There are people in America who are not white.

SANDERS: I asked the Trump supporters in Iowa if they thought the phrase silent majority was just another way of saying good white people. They all said no. And George Davey said Trump represents anything but that.

GEORGE DAVEY: People he hires - I'm sure he has a lot of people of ethnic backgrounds.

SANDERS: I found Davey at his home in West Des Moines. He doesn't want to say who he's caucusing for, but he is a Trump fan. Davey thinks the phrase silent majority really isn't about race now.

DAVEY: The reason why we're silent is because we're not allowed to talk.

SANDERS: Davey thinks it's all about PC culture getting out of hand.

DAVEY: My favorite thing about Trump is he wants to get rid of political correctness. It all started out as the anti-bullying thing where all the sudden, you can't say certain things that might offend people because you're bullying them.

SANDERS: Davey says it's gotten to the point where you can lose your job or get sued just because of what you say.

DAVEY: That is against the Constitution.

SANDERS: Rick Perlstein, the historian, he says whatever people think silent majority means, it probably works because it's all about emotion.

PERLSTEIN: The silent majority is always going to be a state of mind. It's a feeling. You know, it's a feeling of dispossession. And that feeling of dispossession can come about most dramatically in times when, you know, things seem to be changing, you know, when all that's solid melts into air.

SANDERS: When all that's solid melts into air. If you look at it that way, it makes total sense that this so-called majority is angry.


TRUMP: They used to call it the silent majority. I'm calling it the noisy majority because we are angry, and we are angry - we're angry at stupid people.

SANDERS: And we may never know if Donald Trump's silent majority is actually the majority. But if he wins, that could be a clue. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.