How is it that Donald Trump, a man who boasts about having billions in wealth and covers his apartment in gold, could attract the support of two-thirds of white working-class voters in the 2016 presidential election?
There are lots of answers to that question, including racial resentment and sexist attitudes. But another is Americans’ poorly defined sense of class. Now and historically, the working-class and poor Americans think of themselves as the 1 percent in waiting—thus aligning with politicians who, in practice, favor the interests of the wealthy over everyone else’s.
The enemy, instead, is not the wealthy but the elite: the media, the political “establishment,” the academics who warn about climate change. Trump may be rich, but he’s not snobby or elitist. He’s a rich guy who’s just like us, what we’ll be when we’re rich too.
Lower-income Trump supporters are not the only ones who fail to identify their own class standing, however. There is a group whose inability to understand class structure, and their place within it, that is actively making American society more unequal. It’s the very class that Trump supporters so loathe. In a new book, Dream Hoarders, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Richard V. Reeves indicts his own milieu: the upper middle class of America, among them academics, doctors, managers, and members of the media.
Reeves’s book is an important reminder: The United States has a class system, even though we never talk about it. Since 1939, Gallup has found that almost 90 percent of Americans describe themselves as “middle class.” Just 1 to 2 percent define themselves as “upper class.” These definitions have therefore come to do more to obscure class divisions than to illuminate them. Even though the United States has “a more rigid class structure than many European nations, including the United Kingdom,” Reeves points out, “Americans are more tolerant of income inequality…in part because of this faith that in each generation the poor run a fair race against the rich, and the brightest succeed.” He does a great service by talking out loud about his own class and its influence.
His book falls short, however, in its inability to consider how class intersects with and is even often trumped by other factors, like race and gender. His solutions are so mild as to represent barely a slap on the wrist for a class that hoards wealth and opportunity. And he never questions a meritocratic system that will inevitably produce losers, no matter how even the playing field becomes.