Skip to content
Unpopular Populists and the Authenticity Trap
Go to my account

Unpopular Populists and the Authenticity Trap

Who gets to speak for silent majorities?

Former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The great thing about silent majorities is the silence. 

This is true for me personally, since I don’t have to hear them bellyaching all the time. I like the electorate like the Olympics: Intensely—but briefly—heard from every other year, and not much in between. But, of course, I am not a populist. Indeed, I have dangerously curmudgeon-like tendencies.

If I were a populist, though, the silence of silent majorities would be great for the opposite reason. Since we can only guess at the wishes of the mute masses, it falls to their self-appointed representatives to tell us what deep waters run beneath the still surface of popular opinion. Being a voice for the voiceless means you never have to shut up unless you lose an election, and, as we know too well these days, sometimes not even then. 

Populism is a political style characterized by the grievances of a group that sees itself as marginalized or victimized by powerful factions in society, so potentially, pretty much anybody. Pleasure boat owners? Aye aye! Holders of advanced degrees from elite schools? Go to the head of the class! Vegan dairy enthusiasts? Pour it on! All you need is something to be mad about and a way to define the population of the oppressed. But it’s not enough to say that you and a small claque of like-minded citizens agree. You need to claim that it’s not small at all, but only seems that way because, duh, they’re silent. 

The spokesperson for the forgotten men and women is hip to things you, in your privileged position, aren’t. And if you say that she or he is full of beans, you’re only proving yourself to be the callous elite they accused you of being. Like Tinkerbell, it is your disbelief that lets the silent majority die. That takes care of the matter of having to prove—or others being able to disprove—the existence of such a majority.

Almost anything can be evidence of the power of these neglected masses, or of their attitudes. An election loss means that the silent majority stayed home because politicians failed to heed the warnings of the tribunes of the people who can hear the chorus in the silence, or maybe the game was rigged so that the real voters didn’t get the whole story, maybe so rigged as to necessitate “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” Coolcoolcool …

A success, though, may need some explaining, too; otherwise people might not understand the instructions from the silent throngs—“the average rational voter”—for whom the chosen ones speak. And if these demands are not met, the silent ones may stay home next time. And as for proving that your interest group is an electoral winner, just say it is so and sprinkle some cherry-picked facts over the top. It might seem obvious that an election in a time when Americans increasingly disdain both political parties and are deeply frustrated isn’t a mandate for anything, but that’s because you can’t hear the silent majority singing in the wires. 

But who gets to be among the ones who hear? Who gets to speak for the silent majorities?

For more than a decade, the battle has raged, mostly on the right, over which persons or groups authentically understood the experience and interests of poor and working class white Americans. They started out with folksy figures like a former small-town mayor and hockey mom who took on big oil companies or a plumber who confronted the president of the United States. They’ve ended up with a blow-dried coterie of preening graduates of elite schools, and most remarkably, the Ivy League-educated heir to a massive fortune who was also the host of a hit television show. Say what you will about the gooney birds in the House Freedom Caucus, but many of them have at least done some honest work in their lives.   

On the left, the fight has been more about identity than socioeconomics. Can an old white, straight, Christian man really lead a party devoted to the interests of the young, the non-white, the LGBTQIA+, etc.? Is criticism of  his bumbling vice president, the daughter of South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, necessarily misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic? Well, maybe not if it is for her being insufficiently insensitive to the experiences of other disadvantaged people. What if the first lady talks about breakfast tacos? To the barricades! Oppose a higgledy-piggledy package of radical changes to election laws that couldn’t pass anyway? That’s Jim Crow!

What the authenticity tests of the populists on the right and left share in common is that they are ultimately measures of the intensity of one’s antipathies for the putative oppressors—to “hate the right people.” 

In direct democracy, you get mob rule in one step. In representative democracy, you get the shadow of the mob cast on the wall. Sometimes you get a glimpse of the real thing—a mass march, a riot, a killing—but mostly in America it is the scary shadows. What we have to remember is that the success of the individuals casting those shadows substantially depends on how terrifying they can make them seem. Your fear is the evidence to the members of the mob that the ones speaking for them are doing a good job.

There is a vocal supermajority in America that is not silent at all in its cry for an end of the politics of hatred and endless grievance, but that doesn’t generate ratings or clicks as easily as the nasty stuff. Nor is it easy to win a primary election by saying “Things are pretty good, but there are some problems. My opponent is a good person, but I disagree with them on the solutions.” But that doesn’t make it any less true that most Americans would dearly love for this particularly stupid era in our politics to finally burn itself out.

Just remember that when you hear the authentic voices representing those great silent masses.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.