In a now-infamous 1981 interview, Republican strategist Lee Atwater opined that the New Right no longer needed to be explicitly racist to carry the South. In fact, Atwater argued, by refusing to discuss race, while simultaneously pushing policies that “hurt…blacks…worse than whites,” Republicans could potentially “[do] away with the racial problem” altogether. In the decades since, artful phraseology (think welfare queens, forced bussing, states’ rights, super predators) has allowed conservatives to traffic in the politics of racial division while maintaining an outward veneer of “color-blindness.” It has also mainstreamed the conservative critique of the Civil Rights movement, making it legible and popular beyond the American South. When called out on the implicit racial divisiveness of this kind of political messaging, conservatives often counter by accusing critics of “playing the race card.” An ingenious rhetorical device, the Race Card simultaneously deflects blame for injecting race into politics, while clarifying and reinforcing the original coded message.
The “it’s not about race” strategy has worked out well for the modern Republican Party, to put it mildly. And it’s so easy...all you have to do is not mention race, ever! And when an opponent points out the disparate racial impacts of the policies you’re proposing, you hit ‘em with the Race Card! It’s such a familiar, tried-and-true tactic on the right that, even now, it’s almost incredible to see the Republican presidential nominee dispense so completely with pretense of racial opacity. To the extent that there is a deep uneasiness with Trump’s candidacy among Republicans, I suspect that his gleeful shredding of the Atwater playbook has a great deal to do with it. To Trump's most ardent supporters, Atwater's injunction against explicit political racism is just another manifestation of PC culture run amok. To the Republican establishment, many of whom owe their careers to "It's not about race-ism," what Trump is doing probably looks like political suicide, for him and for them.
And maybe it is. But if Trump even makes a good show of it, get ready for a wave of post-Atwater Republicans, who will no longer consider it necessary to disguise the racism at their movement's core.