How Richard Nixon captured white rage — and laid the groundwork for Donald TrumpRoundup
tags: Richard Nixon, presidential history, Donald Trump, US History
Scott Laderman, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, is the author most recently of "The “Silent Majority” Speech: Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Origins of the New Right."
Richard Nixon’s most lasting rhetorical contribution to American politics came at the tail end of a 32-minute speech. Exactly 50 years ago Sunday, and less than a year into his presidency, Nixon presented his plan for a “just peace” in what had become a Southeast Asian morass. But the part of the speech we remember only tangentially dealt with Vietnam.
Frustrated with the resistance he faced at home, including from an increasingly assertive antiwar movement, Nixon made his most famous appeal. “So tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans, I ask for your support,” he said. By this he was referring to the white working and middle classes of the nation’s heartland, the “non-shouters” and “non-demonstrators” he had invoked a year earlier at the Republican National Convention.
With what seemed like a mere throwaway line, Nixon gave birth to a moniker that quickly came to encapsulate the modern era’s burgeoning reactionary movement and has, in important respects, shaped political strategy for both major parties since. He recognized better than any of his modern predecessors that, in a deeply divided nation, Americans’ anger at their ideological opponents could be an effective tool of political mobilization. Nothing moves voters more than rage.
The reaction to Nixon’s speech was electric.
More than 72 million people — about a third of the country — had tuned in to the address, much greater than the number who watched Nixon’s inauguration, and about 400,000 letters, telegrams and postcards then came pouring into the White House. One from the right-wing hotbed of Orange County was typical. “I have just listened to your speech,” a young Californian wrote. “I decided that I have remained silent long enough.”
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