Throughout the social protests against racial discrimination and police brutality in America, President Trump has claimed to have the support of the “Silent Majority.” The “Silent Majority” confrontational strategy has been successfully used in the past by him, and by other candidates, in contexts of high polarization or civil unrest. But this time, the communication strategy might be missing a critical shift in the U.S. demographic.
The ‘Silent Majority” is one of Trump’s storytelling pillars
Trump’s narrative strategy — which he has proved to be a master in — energizes his political base and is increasingly revolving around the “Silent Majority.” This concept seems to be his message pillar since the massive protests triggered by George Floyd’s murder started.
It’s a confrontational political strategy that he employed several times during his campaign in 2016.
Trump’s fans have followed suit, becoming more vocal and using the hashtag #SilentMajorityRising whenever something indicates that Trump might be re-elected in November.
The Silent Majority is not Trump’s invention, but an old trope in politics.
The “Silent Majority’s” point is that only a minority of screaming protestors are promoting and engaging with ideas that challenge the status quo: the “vocal minority.” In contrast, the “Silent Majority” of citizens don’t sympathize with the protestors and don’t agree with their claims but prefer to stay quiet or keep their dissent to themselves.
In this pre-electoral context, accepting the “Silent Majority” theory means admitting that the “Silent Majority” of voters would make Trump President again, surprising those who wrongly perceived that the “vocal minority” represented the majority’s opinions. The supposed “vocal minority” of millions of supporters who protested in the streets under the banner of #Blacklivesmatter would be surprised to learn how Trump’s “Silent Majority” seems indifferent to their claims or might even fundamentally disagree.
The “Silent Majority” is a storytelling strategy that has a rewarding political communication history and has proven to be effective in the past, mostly used by conservative politicians to preserve the status quo. It was famously used by Richard Nixon to minimize the voice of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and its protests, in a speech that took his approval ratings from 50% to 81%. Nixon’s address helped his landslide victory in 1972 when he won 49 of 50 states.
The “Silent Majority” message has also been utilized by candidates and politicians in the U.K, Italy, Canada, Portugal, Australia, and even during the pro-independence protests in Hong Kong and its frictions with the Beijing authorities.
The connection of the “Silent Majority” with the “Spiral of Silence”
The “Silent Majority” relates to another well-known political theory, the “Spiral of Silence.” This term was coined by the german pollster and public opinion expert Noelle-Neumann, who traced the political idea trough history in thinkers like Hobbes, Luter, Machiavelli, Rosseau, Locke, and Hume. At the core of this theory sits the fact that human beings, as social animals, need to feel connected to a group. Therefore, we fear expressing opinions that may contradict the perceived prevalent idea in the group and then suffering the punishment of isolation. The result is that people are reluctant to be vocal against any ideas viewed to be -or likely soon to be- those of the majority.
The “Spiral of Silence” works in the following way: a) All individuals fear social isolation b) A minority of people start expressing new political ideas and become increasingly more vocal when perceiving that they are getting traction in society. Inversely, those who understand that the majority’s views are losing ground grow reluctant to defend them in public and remain silent. c) The new, challenging ideas start to look more mainstream than they really are because the screaming minority is more vocal about them. Meanwhile, the mainstream ideas look less mainstream than they are, because more and more people from the majority choose not to defend them and remain silent. d) The result in the public opinion formation process is that the formerly minority idea becomes the majority’s idea. In contrast, the previously mainstream idea loses cultural validity and followers becoming a minority.
Nixon’s successful use of the “Silent Majority” strategy was centered around those voters who were the demographic majority and typically did not engage in politics. In the 70s, they were conservative white males from the Midwest, West, and the South, rural middle class, non-college-educated, and blue-collar workers. The same voters that Nixon tried to label as “Forgotten Americans” or “Quiet Americans” with less success than “Silent Majority.” Other politicians have called this cluster of voters the “Forgotten Middle Class,” “Angry White Males,” “Soccer moms,” or “NASCAR dads,” as the Republican pollster Frank Luntz pointed out. On the other side, the “Vocal Minority” was the intellectual elite, students, and idealists.
Nixon won because U.S. demographic reality supported the “Silent Majority” strategy. Can Trump rely on this strategy again?
Although labels like “NASCAR dad” or “Soccer Moms” might sound strikingly similar to those used to describe Trump’s demographics fan base during the past elections, Trump’s campaign faces a scenario that no other conservative candidate has confronted in history. No, it’s not the global pandemic and civil unrest, but the national demographic shift.
On the first day of 2020, whites under 18 were already a minority, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Amongst all the young people now in the U.S., there is more ethnically diverse youth than there are white young people.
A combination of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and multiracial Americans represented 40.3% of the total population.
Therefore, the “vocal minority” is not so small.
If the cultural mainstream of this new America is younger and more ethnically diverse than ever, is it wise of Trump to keep running under the Silent Majority banner in the complex context of these elections?
Far from avoiding a confrontational storytelling strategy or acknowledging Black Lives Matter supporters’ reasons for their protests and demonstrations, he seems to be fueling his base by alienating minorities.
He alienated many potential African American voters with his “Law and Order” messaging and photo ops during the marches against police brutality. He has done the same with Latinos with his “Build the Wall” and anti-immigration messages. And he has alienated the Asian American community by repeatedly calling the pandemic the “Chinese Flu” and Covid-19 the “Kung Flu” virus.
Trump might be running his campaign with base-driven messages because some minorities don’t vote and have also been traditionally harder to mobilize than the more disciplined republicans. However, the pandemic and civil unrest might have broken through the passivity to become an incentive for minorities to participate more. People who typically struggle to see the connection between their vote’s impact and their daily reality could be connecting the dots.
His alienating messages against minorities might have fueled anger and might turn into revenge votes.
In these Presidential elections, the “vocal minority” could potentially be more vocal than ever, this time with their ballots.
With this scenario of a demographic shift and a Trump storytelling strategy that alienates 40,3% of the population, it could seem that the odds are against a Trump re-election victory.
But Mr. Trump might still use a compelling narrative with minorities: the economy.
The pandemic has affected minorities in disproportionate ways, both economically and in the number of deaths. If the President managed to create the perception of effective management of the pandemic, a fast economic recovery, or to highlight the merits of “his” stimulus checks, many minority members might decide to disregard his unfriendly messaging strategy.
Some statistics support this hypothesis. Twenty-nine percent of Latinos -the largest nonwhite ethnic voting bloc in this fall’s Presidential elections- voted for Trump in 2016, regardless of the “Build the Wall,” “Bad hombres,” and “Rapists” messages. “Lower cost of health care,” “Improving incomes,” and “Creating more jobs” make up 56% of the Latino community’s priorities, while “Protecting immigration rights” and “Stopping Trump/GOP agenda” represent only 24%, up to a Univision Noticias poll. In May, 44% of Latinos approved of the President’s handling of the pandemic, according to a survey by Somos Healthcare, UnidosUS, and MoveOn. Mr. Trump has the support of 22% of registered Hispanic voters. In February, 73% of Latino voters said they were “almost certain” to vote this coming November. Two months later, that number dropped to 60%, according to The New York Times.
A double storytelling strategy: the “Silent Majority” for his base — energized with anti-minority messages — and “It’s The Economy, Stupid” for the minorities, could have Trump re-elected in the fall, as long as he doesn’t lose his core base.
If the re-election happens, Mr. Trump’s campaign would have demonstrated the efficacy of the confrontational “Silent Majority” strategy once more.
The catch? Having to lead a younger, more ethnically diverse, divided, and loud New America.
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*About the author:
Antonio Nunez is a communication consultant, author, and speaker specialized in Storytelling. For ideas and tips on storytelling and communication, you can join his free newsletter at antonionunez.com or follow his Twitter @AntonNunez