The Violence at the Root of the Silent MajorityRoundup
tags: conservatism, film, Richard Nixon, Hard Hat Riot, reactionary politics
Brian Tochterman is assistant professor of sustainable community development at Northland College and author of The Dying City: Postwar New York and the Ideology of Fear.
It has been more than 50 years since Richard Nixon conjured the category of the “silent majority” to separate his base of support from the urban rebellions and vocal liberation, countercultural and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s. As a phrase that symbolizes a reserved, white, predominantly working-class conservatism, its power as a rhetorical political tool endures even after a half-century of social and cultural change. Donald Trump recently took a page from Nixon’s playbook, tweeting both “LAW AND ORDER” and “THE VAST SILENT MAJORITY IS ALIVE AND WELL!” hoping to energize his reelection campaign and mostly white base of support after the largest anti-racism uprising in the country’s history.
But the silent majority is not just an electoral idea. It is also an enduring cultural trope. In fact, July marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “Joe,” a film that sought to capture and capitalize on seething political discontent among white conservatives. With a title that connoted the generic, white working-class everyman, “Joe” was the first of a number of films in the 1970s that suggested that authorities had failed to bring order after the rebellious 1960s. It may have faded from our cultural memory, but the film’s representation of volatile white racism and resentment echoes in our contemporary politics. It also highlights how swiftly popular culture can seize on and profit from political narratives.
For the filmmakers, title character Joe Curran, played by Peter Boyle, embodied the backlash against 1960s liberation movements and an ascendant status anxiety wrought by deindustrialization. The audience first encounters Curran about a third of the way into the movie enjoying a post-shift beer down at the tavern, where he pontificates on race and class to no one in particular. He is a silent majority stand-in who revels in bombast.
Curran’s sermon targets the perceived scapegoats of his predicament: the emergent racial “underclass” and the counterculture. He is loud and unsparing with the worst racial epithets and conjures a precursor to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.” Dog-whistling on affirmative action, Curran complains that his son was denied access to universities because of racial quotas. Yet he actually hates white college students more than African Americans and frequently fantasizes about killing “hippies.”
But he soon meets William Compton, a Manhattan business executive who has just murdered his daughter’s hippie boyfriend. Compton doesn’t use racial epithets the way Curran does, but he revels in his new friend’s innate bigotry. Their chance meeting commences a mutually beneficial cross-class relationship built on hate and vengeance. Eventually, fantasies of violence result in tragedy. Traveling to an upstate commune to kill hippies, Curran shoots and kills freely, while Compton only musters the courage in time to unknowingly murder his daughter. Given this climax, it is hard to see “Joe” as anything but a cautionary tale on the contingencies of hatred and difference in the 1960s. However, audience reactions and the actions of the filmmakers blurred the film’s message.
In part, this was a product of context. Tensions between the white working class and young antiwar protesters in New York City came to a head in early May 1970, as hundreds of college and high school students in downtown Manhattan demonstrated against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the massacre at Kent State University. Construction workers, laboring in the vicinity, converged on the crowd at lunchtime and began fulfilling Joe’s fantasy of preemptive violence upon young nonconformists.
In what became known as the “Hard Hat Riot” and subsequent demonstrations, white-collar workers from Wall Street also donned construction helmets and jumped into the fray. The Nixon administration, however, incorporated hard-hat imagery into the narrative of “a great silent majority” of quiet, patriotic Americans, not publicly airing its discontent or taking protestations to the street.
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