Donald Trump and father Fred Trump at the opening of New York’s Wollman Rink in 1987. (Dennis Caruso/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

At Monday night’s debate, it wasn’t long before Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump for using a $14 million loan from his wealthy father, Fred Trump, to get his own business started. In response, Trump described the loan as “small.”

What do Americans actually believe about the wealth of Fred Trump? In a recent poll, Maryland political scientist Liliana Mason asked respondents to describe Fred Trump’s social class at the time of his son’s birth in 1946.

By then, Fred Trump’s company was almost 20 years old and he had built and sold many homes and one of the first supermarkets. It seems quite likely that by the standards of the time, he was already a wealthy man.

But this is not a widely shared view among Americans in either party, according to poll results that Mason shared with me:


(John Sides)

Only 53 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Republicans described Fred Trump as “wealthy” at that point in time. Most of the rest were relatively evenly split between upper middle class, middle class and working class — suggesting that they believe that Fred Trump’s social class was essentially the same as the people in Queens who were buying his homes in the 1920s for about $4,000 (or roughly $56,000 in today’s dollars).

The Washington Post explores the origins of Donald Trump's transformation from a businessman to political candidate. (McKenna Ewen,Whitney Shefte,Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

One could chalk up the perception to several things. Of course, Americans often have better things to do than learn facts about a presidential candidate’s family history. Americans also tend to underestimate how much wealth wealthy people actually have.

And Americans prefer for themselves the label “middle class” — even when their incomes are well above the median — suggesting that they could also apply the label to others, such as Fred Trump, with large incomes.