I can’t recall the number of conversations I’ve had over the years, usually semi-drunken ones, regarding whether or not America has a class system or not. Many Americans and non-Americans, left-wingers and right-wingers, have insisted during such arguments that America does not have a class system at all, and to think otherwise is to misunderstand what a class system actually is. Post-Trump, many of those I have chatted with on this subject are now starting to think I perhaps had a point. It’s a shame it took the elevation of Donald Trump to leader of the free world for them to see this.
One thing that was always a feature of these discussions that needs to be addressed here is that yes, America does not consciously have a class system. In other words, people don’t self-identify as working-class, or middle-class or lower-middle class or upper-middle class in the same way that people in Britain do. This has been a slam dunk (if I may use an Americanism in context here) for many people over my assertion that America has a class system – if no one is aware of it, then it can’t really exist. If an American from an eastern Pennsylvanian mining town becomes a millionaire businessman, it is true that he will not think of himself as still working-class in the same way that someone from Blackburn who had managed the same feat would. But I still don’t agree that this means that America does not have a class system.
In fact, I have always argued that America’s class system is much worse than Britain’s. In the UK, you would never see a politician from an upper-middle class background argue that they were working-class. It just would never wash – they would be laughed at and everyone knows it, so they don’t even try. As an example, imagine David Cameron having attempted Trump’s trick and called himself a “working-class Etonian”. It would have been considered a ridiculous joke. Yet in America, you can get away with this, no problem.
The British class system thus has a positive effect not commented on enough in the UK. An upper-middle class person in Britain is entirely aware on a sort of molecular level that they have been given breaks that no working-class person gets. This doesn’t mean that they really empathise with the problems the working-class face, but they are at least conscious of there being a real difference. In America, regardless of how sterling the silver spoon you were born with in your mouth, you and society consider everything you have as being the result of “hard work”, even if you’ve never done a day’s work in your life. As for being poor in America – it must be your fault then. “Why can’t poor people get up earlier in the morning?” is a real Americanism, as if hard work is really all that is required to become financially successful.
I think the election of Trump broke that old way of thinking. Even though Trump himself could still get away with calling himself a “blue collar billionaire” during the campaign, the self-awareness on the part of people in poorer communities that they had been treated badly by the system – and that, more importantly, it was not their fault that they are poor – led to the rebellion that caused Trump to happen. Where that goes from here, I don’t know, but an awareness of the existence of a class system in America could be one of the few upsides to a Trump presidency.