Trump told Fox News this week that, like the Obama administration, a Trump-led government would focus federal immigration enforcement activity on the subset of undocumented immigrants who commit crimes inside the United States. This, Trump said, has been all that Obama needed to dispatch "a lot of people." The Trump flourish: He'll do it with "more energy." Right now, it's light on details. But it certainly doesn't sound as if there's a muscular and mass illegal immigrant roundup in there.
That, America, is what a political reversal born of a demographic reckoning sounds like.
Of course, Trump and his campaign staff have worked hard this week to call it something else. That's fine and to be expected. But this remains true: Trump is the candidate who made stopping illegal immigration and deporting all of the nation's 11.2 million undocumented immigrants his political raison d'être.
So why would Donald Trump even imply that his ideas on immigration are changing or have changed or will not amount to a blunt instrument molded in the image of "Operation Wetback," as he led primary voters to believe? Well, the reason amounts to a matter of plain mathematical sense and the very human stories that population data contain.
Trump's numbers-savvy new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has almost certainly acquainted Trump with a reality that he may not have noticed in his tour of large venues filled with sometimes-raucous, overwhelmingly white crowds. This is a country where in late 2014, the New Republic gave one of the nation's lead demographers, the Brookings Institution's William Frey, some space to write. What he published amounted to this: There's ample evidence that "post-white America" is already here. Got that? It is not pending, in many practical ways that matter right now. A more diverse America with theoretically equal political power has arrived.
Let's break this down to its essence with the help of census data.
In 1980, the country's population looked like this:
By 2015, it looked like this:
In 1980, this is what the American electorate and its voting activity looked like.
In 2012, the most recent presidential election year and a period therefore indicative of what we are likely to see come November, this is what the American electorate and voting activity looked like.
This is how all of the phenomena above combined to shape presidential politics over the past 20 years.
Finally, in the four years since Mitt Romney lost a chance at the White House — at least in part because of his support for concepts like "self deportation" and assumptions that he could just say something different in the general election — the population and the American electorate haven't stopped changing.
Take note of the fine print, too: This chart does not even include Native American and biracial voters, who also lean heavily toward Democrats. By some estimates, there are about 9.1 million new white voters who could participate in 2016 and 7 million total voters of color. Some of those white voters will lean Republican. Some will not. Almost all of those voters of color will not.
Identity shapes experience; therefore, it continues to shape our politics. That is why there are so many voters of color who back the same party, and the same is true of white voters. Don't expect that to change until identity-related imbalances in pay for the same work, access to lower-quality health care, schools and other public facilities, more frequent and disproportionately perilous contact with police and higher-cost borrowing for homes, cars and businesses disappear.
Another major identity-related force in modern presidential politics is this. Many voters of color and some white one,s too — not just Latinos — have formed mixed-status families. These are households in which U.S. citizens — naturalized and natural-born — undocumented and documented immigrants form families. There are at least 9 million people who by virtue of their direct emotional, genetic and economic ties to undocumented immigrants aren't going to find the way that Trump has spent the bulk of his campaign talking about roundups easy to overlook.
But here is the real takeaway from all those numbers and charts.
Both the share of the total population and the total electorate that is white is shrinking. However, while voters of color have become a bigger part of the electorate and voted with increasing strength and consistency for decades, white voters have not. This is particularly true for low-income white voters, an important part of the Republican base. There are likely a number of reasons for this; among the many things that the Republican Party will have to sort out in the 2016 election and beyond is what the party's platform will need to include to bring these voters back.
Trump has been lauded by a lot of Republicans for mounting a campaign that — at least at his rallies and events — seems to have engaged people who are not particularly concerned about corporate tax rates or inheritance penalties. Trump voters, many a reporter has said this cycle, are driven by economic anxiety. A massive August report released by Gallup shows that's probably not strictly true. A good portion of what drives Trump voters is their sense of lost social dominance and the ability to bequeath all that can come with this to their children. And there have been other studies that strongly hinted at the same.
Translation: The country and its composition have changed dramatically. And Trump followers do not like it at all, hence their attraction to Trump's hard line on immigration and what some might, at the very least, describe as a whole range of exclusionary policy ideas.
Still, all that anxiety or anger or whatever is not enough. Emotions do not trump votes.
This may well be obvious to a lot of people. But human beings who vote — based in large part on those identity-related experiences — are going to decide this election. It seems Trump may have finally realized just who America, circa 2016, really is.