The least surprising development of this election, as far as I can tell, is the revelation that we have some enormous divides in this country, particularly around class (also around race... but just for a moment... bear with me). The hard part is, we're terrible at talking about it.
As an American, what I love about our either/or dilemmas is how we maneuver in between our contrary impulses. Striving to be good, but acting, collectively, in ways that are often vindictive and spectacularly mean. A peaceful nation with the world's largest army. And, of course, the nation of equals with the widest distance between extreme wealth and deep poverty, where in Lake Woebegone fashion, everyone is above average. And part of the middle class.
I gave up on "middle class" as a useful term some time ago, and this election, like some, I've come to eliminate "working class" from my assessments as well. "White working class" doesn't really describe the Trump victory, not even with "uprising" attached at the end. In terms of exit polls, when Americans are separated by income, Mrs. Clinton found her greatest success among people with incomes under $50,000 a year, while Trump enjoyed better results over $50,000. Median income in the country is around $52,000, so Trump and Clinton effectively split the "middle class" of those around the median.
"Working Class" is an even more amorphous term, since income is usually, you know, based on employment, especially here in the US. It's meant to imply people who are, or see themselves as, somewhat worse off than educated professionals, but none of that is especially well defined or demographically useful.
Again, from a measurable and defined group perspective, Donald Trump's largest lopsided majorities came from white people, especially white men, living in more rural parts of the country. The further away from an urban center you go, the larger his majorities became. In places with smaller cities, with less of a well defined urban center, Trump's wins among whites extended into those centers. And in less urbanized areas with higher minority populations, Trump did worse. Trump also did worse in the counties where major universities are located, both because he did worse among young people and among the college educated professionals (virtually by definition) who work at them.
Polling has shown, repeatedly and over long periods, that most Americans choose the definition of "middle class" for themselves, even when, by income, they fall well outside the median. Few people want to identify as poor. People hesitate to admit they are rich. Class distinctions make us uncomfortable, yet we are, as a nation, highly aspirational in our thinking. And culturally, it's a mixed bag just how we want to see ourselves in popular media - TV and films distort the size of the homes and apartments where most Americans live; characters portrayed are rarely something other than white collar professionals, like a lawyer or doctor.
As I said, we live within these amazing contradictions - who we are, who we'd like to be, how we see ourselves and others in the mix of this country. So on the one hand, this election revives an interesting, and at times necessary discussion of how people feel who are living amongst, and possibly with, major economic distress. On the other, by talking about the results in terms of "the forgotten working class" we are creating instant tropes with little real grounding in hard facts.
And yes, the big unmentioned elephant in this has a lot to do with race. A nation that has struggled for years with a complicated history around the treatment of African Americans can't really be expected, overnight, to master looking in the other direction. "White working class" has become itself a preferred slippery phrasing, meant in part to try to soften a value judgment implied in discussing the economic hardships of whites without college degrees, because "the less educated" just drips pejorative. And that's fair. This election has a lot of terms that can be benign, but sound loaded - the working poor. High school graduates. Rural whites.
What we're trying not to talk about, because it's uncomfortable, are the very real elements of class distinctions and resentments we live with and avoid all day long. We live, most of us, in enclaves of people of similar backgrounds, wealth, and race. We interact with people of different backgrounds, gingerly avoiding areas of conversation and information that would suggest value judgments - oh, you took the bus here. You live in [other neighborhood, other town]. What college did you go to? As a mixed race person from a well educated family of professionals, I've run into, and lived, all sorts of permutations of the uncomfortable divides we navigate. And what I know is, we generally don't do it all that well. And our failure to hide, really, our own feelings about class distinctions, while fogging our conversations in the language of vague egalitarianism, is why we're here. Here being the point of an election tied up in a lot of ugly revelations about race and class and how we "really" see and feel about one another.
In the aftermath of the election then, as we struggle, all of us, to put back together a sense of national comity after 18 months of especially harsh rhetoric - much of it stoking anger and fear and class resentment - it will be useless to have this discussion in vague terms. Democrats are already hand wringing over the need to reach out to the "white working class" and conservative pundits chortle at the "takedown of liberal elites." "We've rejected the establishment" we are told of this election, while the same educated professionals as ever prepare to assume leadership roles. Less protests, we need unity, the cries go as protests fill the street. Keep it classy, America. Just don't bring up class.
More to the point, I'm not sure we can have a conversation across or about these class divides because we really don't know how to discuss them, to acknowledge what's real and what's false in how we see one another, even how we see ourselves. As a nation of either/or dilemmas, though, I'm not sure we have a choice, and the discussion, such as it is, will be painful and awkward and at least initially may not seem like we're getting anywhere at all - but none of that is reason not to try. Given that Trump's success attracting angry and fearful voters may not translate into any kind of solutions for their (or anyone's) problems, the choice we face is starting to unpack and figure out our very real class divides... or just watch them get exploited, again.