In 1968, Richard Nixon realized he could not become president unless he made a deeply cynical move: convincing southern racists to vote Republican.
The trouble was, they hadn't done that since the Republican Abe Lincoln freed the slaves. But Nixon calculated that the Democratic "Solid South" could now be broken open: after the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and '64, and the Voting Rights Act of '65, racists, feeling betrayed and furious, were looking for a new home.
So, in what became known as the Southern Strategy, Nixon invited racists into the GOP. Ever since, the racists have been essential to the party's "winning coalition," the collection of targeted groups that can add up to electoral victory.
Not all Republicans are racists, of course. But without racists, I don't think the GOP can win elections.
Not the kind of thing you want to talk about openly, though. So Republican politicians have become fluent in a kind of code, which they use to communicate with the ugly part of their base without offending polite society. In 1981, GOP consultant Lee Atwater offered a guide in an interview:
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
More recent examples: "taking back our country," voter ID, border security and birtherism.
But now, along comes a cartoon racist like Donald Trump, who ignores the code and drops the veil from the GOP's structural racism. In response, Republican politicians pronounce themselves shocked to see such blatant bigotry, naked and unashamed.
It's a tough sell. The GOP has been doing a racist strip tease for decades now, and Trump is just skipping the tease. Only a few years ago, Senator Lindsey Graham could safely flirt with anti-immigrant racism on Fox News. Now, he's forced to go on CNN and publicly disown Trump's very similar comments, calling him a "wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party with the Hispanic community."
But it may point to a possible upside. Thanks to gauche clowns like Trump -- not to mention Cliven Bundy, Steve King and others -- the GOP, like the Democratic Party of the 60s, might be forced to reform itself, if only to end the pain.
Because the party is finally experiencing the agony of racism in a form it can't ignore: bad PR.
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