If you are one of our international listeners (we’re pretty clearly based in the U.S.) you may have looked at what’s been going on in America for the last few weeks and wondered “What the actual hell?” We cannot seem to get our crap together. We completely screwed up our response to the coronavirus leading to unparalleled death and contagion, our economy collapsed in the face of our delayed and poorly executed and planned response, and now we find ourselves in a state of civil unrest in response to years of racial tension and police brutality with our leadership calling the military on its own citizens and evidence of state violence against its own people pouring in from EVERYWHERE. This is not our finest hour. But the book of Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun. Is this really a surprise? Or are we falling into old habits?
Last week we talked about #BlackLivesMatter and touched on systemic racism. That’s kind of an unavoidable topic right now. What is going on in American is nothing short of a movement, and I really don’t know where it is headed. Racism and violence are so entrenched in our systems it is hard to see a way out of the darkness. But things can’t continue as they have been. But the state is showing no signs of remorse or willingness to change. In fact, it is doubling down on oppression and hostility. We are starting to see some fissures as some military leaders, past and present, are beginning to break from the administration, but until the boots on the ground are under control this really looks like an all-powerful state snuffing out a sticks-and-stones rebellion.
Apparently, in all of this, Trump had an opportunity to address the nation and he chose not to do it because he had “nothing to say.” That’s pretty remarkable. Though, as of Sunday night the rumor is that he is considering an address on race. Reactions to this are mixed. On the one hand, a president SHOULD address us in trying times. On the other, there aren’t many people who feel confident Trump and his speech writers are up to this monumental task. One of the things a president is supposed to do is lead us through times of trial and tribulation and Trump, so far, has elected not to talk to us as a country because he just doesn’t have anything to talk about. That says a lot about his capabilities as a leader and how he is able to unite the country – something all people agree a president should do. But Trump has never worked toward unification. He has consistently fanned the flames of division, and when a time came that division would be absolutely inappropriate, he just elected not to say anything because he doesn’t know how to do anything else.
But he has still been active on Twitter. He may not be addressing us officially, but he is still talking to us. We talked last week about how he was emphasizing “law and order” (he literally just tweeted out the words “LAW AND ORDER”) in his e-missives to the masses. That was a direct nod to the systemic racism that pervades our institutions. Law & order rhetoric, as we discussed last week, is code for suppressing marginalized communities.
It was also a nod to a previous president, Richard Nixon, who was elected on a law and order platform. On May 8th Trump told Fox News he had “learned a lot” from Richard Nixon and apparently this applies to a wide variety of policies and rhetorical appeals. Then on June 2nd Trump tweeted out “SILENT MAJORITY!” a direct reference to Nixon’s Nov 3rd, 1969 “The Great Silent Majority” speech which changed American politics indelibly. This concept of the Silent Majority is an important one to understand – and it is dangerous to free speech and American politics.
So today we’re going to talk a little bit about Nixon and Trump. I have published some about this so if you want a link to a full article I will put that on the website in the transcript – there’s an article at commlawreview.org on Trump and Nixon and the press – and we’re going to specifically spend some time on the concept of the Great Silent Majority and what that means.
First, we have to comment on the similarities between Trump and Nixon in general. We’ve already noted their “law and order” platforms, and their hostility to Communities of Color, but there is a great deal more to comment on in terms of their commonalities. The most obvious thing to point out are the ethics violations. Both the Trump and the Nixon administrations were hounded by charges of wrong-doings. Nixon had been needled by reporters since the 50s about monetary issues but had managed to remain relatively clean until he got to the White House. But he was not unscathed. His notorious “Checkers” speech in which he described his innocence and focused on his wife’s cloth coat and his adorable dog that he bought her are evidence that he had been defending his honor for a while. Trump had been dealing with charges of corruption for years. Everyone knew his business dealings were sketchy at best, but his “success” as a businessman (which is questionable) often superseded any ethical questions. But Trump found when he made it to the White House his actions were under heightened scrutiny. He couldn’t behave as a CEO without anyone to answer to anymore and was constantly dogged by the opposition and ethics watchdogs. What is notable is the different outcomes these two presidents had. Nixon was undoubtedly guilty of crimes and ethics violations. He lost the support of his party, though not necessarily the support of his constituents. He resigned before he could be impeached. Trump was also undoubtedly guilty of crimes and ethics violations. However, his party continued to support him. So he faced impeachment and came out on top. So while Nixon was held accountable (until his ultimate pardoning), Trump has been granted complete latitude by his party, and ultimately not held accountable for a variety of crimes and ethics violations. In this way, Nixon and Trump have similar beginnings but very different outcomes.
A second similarity between Trump and Nixon, which speaks to their approach to leadership, is their relationship to the press. Like Trump, Nixon saw the press as “the enemy” and worked to discredit it in a number of ways. William Safire, Nixon’s speechwriter, said he repeatedly heard Nixon call the press “the enemy.” Nixon, like Trump, worked to delegitimize the press, and in some ways it worked. Public opinion about the press seemingly responded to both presidents’ (and parties) attacks on the press by dropping precipitously. Members of the Nixon administration referred to the press as “merchants of hate” and “parasites of passion” and claimed the country would be no worse for wear if it were to separate from the press entirely.
Nixon used his connections to make it difficult for a network owned by The Washington Post to get its FCC license renewed and directed his aides to “screw” The Post by inciting shareholders to “go after” Katherine Graham by targeting the paper’s real estate investments. The Justice Department filed anti-trust charges against NBC, ABC, and CBS for monopolistic practices, and federal prosecutors drafted legislation that would have made it a felony for journalists to get unauthorized leaks. In a move that comes as no surprise from a historical perspective, Nixon authorized illegal wiretaps on journalists who criticized the administration. In this way, Nixon was different from Trump because he took his war on the press further legally.
In some ways, Nixon lost his war with the press. His administration lost the high profile New York Times Co. v. United States case, which only strengthened the notion of a free press, and he was ultimately brought down by two dogged investigative journalists in the Watergate scandal. When Nixon engaged with the press in legal matters he lost.
President Trump has long expressed his doubts about the efficacy of a free press. He has described his desire to “open up” libel laws so that it is easier to sue media who speak ill of him. However, he does not seem to have taken legal steps the way Nixon did. In Trump’s first press event as president, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, used the opportunity to tell the press what they should be covering and repeatedly accused them of dishonesty and poor judgment. These rhetorical attacks on the press have been a mainstay of this administration’s press conferences (such as they have been). Trump and his then-adviser Steve Bannon have called the press the “opposition party” and described their relationship to the press in particularly divisive ways. This is particularly troubling when considered with the fact that Trump has specifically called for reporters to be fired for their coverage of his rallies and the Michael Flynn controversy. Kellyanne Conway has asked for journalists who covered Trump negatively to be terminated.
In setting up the press as the enemy and crafting a narrative in which all negative coverage is “fake,” the administration is engaging in a direct attack on the citizenry’s ability to self-govern. This points to a particularly authoritarian streak in both administrations. The press has a particular job in a democracy – to act as a check on the government. That’s why the Founding Fathers were so adamant that a free press was essential to a functioning democracy.
A free press fact checks the government, provides information to the people, and keeps the power of the government from becoming absolute. An administration that sees that as an “enemy force” is making a powerful statement about the way it sees itself in relation to its people.
Both Nixon and Trump saw themselves as beyond this kind of check – they saw the press as oppression and persecution. But it isn’t oppression or persecution when the powerful are just being restrained from becoming domineering. It is gaslighting when the powerful tell you they are being persecuted when in actuality they are being kept from becoming a tyrannical force. This is important to understand about the Trump administration. It does not recognize the boundaries of the law or society as healthy boundaries, because Trump sees himself as all-powerful. The press, then, is the enemy because the press challenges that power.
This brings the “law & order” rhetoric into focus then. It isn’t about obeying the law or any real kind of order. It is about his authority. If this were about “law & order” then there would be an effort to address the concerns of protesters and police violence, as those are obviously issues of the law. But this isn’t about who breaks the law – the state flouts the law on a daily basis. This is about authoritarian power being exerted over those who do NOT have power.
This brings us to the rhetorical appeal I want to talk about today – the “Silent Majority.” We’ll begin with Nixon, as he coined the phrase.
Nixon gave “The Great Silent Majority” speech on Nov 3, 1969, in the thick of the Vietnam war. His goal was to address the division over Vietnam. He said that he believed one of the major reasons for that division was many Americans had lost confidence in what the government had told them about its policies. So he gave the speech to address some specific questions:
How and why did America get involved in Vietnam in the first place?
How has this administration changed the policy of the previous Administration?
What has really happened in the negotiations in Paris and on the battlefront in Vietnam?
What choices do we have if we are to end the war?
What are the prospects for peace?
That’s a lot of ground to cover in one speech.
Nixon begins with describing the situation he was elected into. This is an important reminder to the audience that THIS IS NOT HIS FAULT. The first thing he says is that the was had been going on for 4 year and that 31,000 Americans had been killed in action. He then goes on the describe the dire situation in Vietnam when he took office. He reminds his audience that the country was already deeply divided when he was elected. He never directly says “It’s not my fault” but the implication is clear. This is meant to impugn the previous administration. We should be put in mind of how the Trump administration constantly blames the Obama administration for current problems.
Nixon says he was urged by some to simply withdraw from Vietnam, as that would have been the popular and easy thing to do. It would have allowed him to blame the defeat on his predecessor. BUT, he says, he had a greater duty. He had to think of the next generation and the future peace of American and the world. So this is an important argument he is making – staying involved in the conflict was the difficult and the moral thing to do. He COULD have blamed his predecessor but chose not to. This is a fun rhetorical trick – he starts out blaming Johnson then paints himself as a moral figure for not blaming Johnson. It’s clever rhetoric.
Then he moves on to the question of how did the US become involved in Vietnam? His history of the conflict in Vietnam is partisan and brief. There is no mention of Ho Chi Minh or the French. It simply lists what Eisenhower did, what Kennedy did, and what Johnson did, and that he has been critical of the way the war has been conducted. And then he just moves on.
The next question, then, is what is the best way to end it? He first argues that immediate withdrawal would be deadly and would lead to atrocities. This first defeat in the nation’s history “would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership not only in Asia but throughout the world.” It would spark violence wherever we have other commitments to help maintain the peace and so eventually cost many more lives. It would bring more war. Instead, he says, “We have offered the complete withdrawal of all outside forces within one year. We have proposed a cease fire under international supervision. We have offered free elections under international supervision with the Communists participating in the organization and conduct of the elections as an organized political force. And the Saigon government has pledged to accept the result of the election. We have not put forth our proposals on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. We have indicated that we’re willing to discuss the proposals that have been put forth by the other side. We have declared that anything is negotiable, except the right of the people of South Vietnam to determine their own future.” But, he says, Hanoi has refused to discuss these proposals. So, he has pursued private avenues that might lead to a settlement
He then spends a good deal of time detailing some of the efforts he and Henry Kissinger have made to try and reach a peaceful solution to Vietnam. He specifically details “Vietnamization” – providing equipment and training to the South Vietnamese so they could take up the fight for themselves. He then says withdrawal will begin, but not on a fixed timetable and outlines why a flexible timetable is the better option. He wraps this by be claiming that this is not the easy way to deal with out problems – it is the right way. It will end the war and “serve the cause of peace not just in Vietnam but in the Pacific and in the world.”
This brings us to the most rhetorically savvy portion of the speech. Nixon has crafted an argument so far based on basic appeals to logos by providing basic timelines, sets of facts, and scenarios. This has not been a particularly complex or challenging speech. He simply laid out his plans and argued that they were the best of all possible solutions. Here in the end he says that in our history we have faced crises and have become stronger by rejecting the easy way and doing the right thing. Some of his fellow citizens disagree with his plan. Notice the juxtaposition he set up – this is the right thing and it will lead to peace but some people disagree with it.
What does that say about the people who disagree with the plan? It paints them as being in the wrong and against peace. But he allows that these people aren’t terrible. He calls them “honest and patriotic Americans” that have “reached different conclusions as to how peace should be achieved.” So he is constructing himself as a magnanimous rhetor, even if he is in the right and other people are wrong. He mentions protesters he has seen and says one of the great strengths of our society is that any American has a right to reach their own conclusions and advocate for their own point of view.
But here’s where it gets clever:
He says “as President of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this nation to be dictated by the minority who hold that point of view and who try to impose it on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street.” He sets it up so that those who disagree with him are the minority. He argues that “If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society.”
In other words, the minority is dangerous.
His final appeal is to the “great silent majority.” But consider this rhetorical work he has done. The minority are the dissenters in the street. So who is left? The silent majority. Those who don’t say anything. He sets up a dichotomy in which you are minority if you are a dissenter – meaning the majority are those who are agreeing with him silently. He says he is asking them for their support but he has already set up a rhetorical framework so that if they speak out against him they are the minority. The majority is on his side. And how does he know they are on his side? They are silent. SO, anyone who dissents is automatically the minority.
“The Great Silent Majority” changes the political paradigm. It creates a framework in which dissent can automatically be ignored because it does not represent the will of the people. Silence indicates you are part of the majority. Which means the will of the administration is unquestionable.
This is authoritarianism AT ITS FINEST. It is a rhetorical framework that sets the President above the will of the people, above criticism, and beyond reproach. It creates a scenario that automatically marginalizes any kind of attempt to voice a political opinion other than parroting the administration and encourages silence. It is no coincidence that this speech came from the President who saw himself so above the law that he had to resign and once said “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” This is the rhetoric of someone who sees himself as the ultimate authority
So, when Trump tweeted “SILENT MAJORITY!” on June 2nd we should take him seriously. He like Nixon, sees himself above the fact-checking of the press. He, like Nixon, has been plagued with ethical and legal trouble. And he, like Nixon, finds himself in a situation in which protesters throughout the nation are taking to the streets.
But Nixon was, perhaps, kinder to protesters than Trump. Nixon admitted that protesters had first amendment rights. Nixon did not invoke laws from the 1800s on protesters. In many ways, Trump has shown himself to be much more of an authoritarian than Nixon. So when Trump tweets out “Silent Majority,” a clear reference to Nixon’s speech, we should consider that full argument. We should recognize that Trump is delegitimizing all dissenters. He is claiming that silence is complicity and if you are not speaking out you agree with him, and by that argument, if you speak out you are in the minority. And in a country where the majority supposedly rules, that makes you the loser.
But Trump has called for governors to “dominate” the losers. He does not hide his authoritarian language.
And who are those who deserve to be dominated in this scenario? People who want to dismantle racism. People who are against police brutality. People who believe Black Lives Matter. Trump wants to dominate those who would speak out against white supremacy and state violence and claims that anyone who speaks out in their favor is in the minority – and he knows this BECAUSE THEY SPOKE OUT.
I believe these are dangerous, or at least important, times. The direction of the nation is being mapped out right now. Historians are going to study this period of our history, for good or for ill. Someone in the future may ask you how you responded to this moment. That’s a sobering thought.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.