Foxbot Martha McCallum opened last night’s first Republican primary debate with a reference to a new country music hit, Rich Men North of Richmond. In a question addressed to Ron DeSantis, she said: “It is by a singer from Farmville, Virginia, named Oliver Anthony — his lyrics speak of alienation, of deep frustration with the state of government and of this country. So, Governor DeSantis, why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now?”
This opening softball gave DeSantis an opportunity to spew stale Republican pablum about gummint spending, blaming Congress and “trillions and trillions of dollars” and “those rich men north of Richmond” who “ have put us in this situation.”
He did not, of course, take the moment to ask McCallum why oligarch Rupert Murdoch’s mega-messaging machine, always in service to corporate profits and vulture capitalists, is promoting a so-called working class anthem. Has the desiccated Aussie turned Woody Guthrie in his dotage?
Virginia-based country singer Oliver Anthony wrote "Rich Men North of Richmond" and released it as a music video on Youtube two weeks ago. Anthony, born Christopher Anthony Lunsford, affects a mountain man look, with a bushy red-beard and t-shirt and in the video he delivers a folksy song in a simple musical style, strumming a resonator acoustic guitar. He claims to “sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics” (a position that, it must be said, in today’s America always suggests an inclination to the right).
The song racked up 36 million views in a few weeks, amplified and enabled by Fox anchor Laura Ingraham, Matt Walsh, and other rightist influencers. They have described the song, per the New York Times, as “an authentic expression of working-class struggle.”
The spectacle of a corporatist messaging leviathan like Fox promoting a song about working class struggle is risible enough. But let’s look at this piece of all-American music for a moment.
Start with the title: "Rich Men North of Richmond." Most analyses of the song have taken this to refer to Washington, DC, and its tax-grabbin’ crypto-socialists. I’ll buy that. But what is Richmond in this context? Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy. Anthony could have titled his tune "Rich Men North of Farmville," where he lives. Or he could, more accurately have titled it without geographical borders, including wherever the one percent lives and works, from Palo Alto to Dallas to New York City.
But no, he did not. That’s because “rich men” up “north” whistles to the tune of the Lost Cause and its racist argument that the Civil War wasn’t fought over sadistic enslavement of Black humans but was an economic struggle between moral, agrarian southerners and northern bankers and industrialists.
Now, take a look at the lyrics: “If you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds/Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.” And: “I wish politicians would look out for miners,” Mr. Anthony sings, “and not just minors on an island somewhere. Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat, and the obese milkin’ welfare.”
The obese, fudge-eating welfare queen, “milkin’” the system was first introduced into American politics by the modern GOP’s godfather Ronald Reagan, whose presidency marked the dividing line between an America with a strong middle class and unionized labor, and an increasingly dystopic era marked by wealth inequality and related class resentment.
It is a fact that Reagan destroyed the labor movement when he fired the air traffic controllers. He also unleashed deregulated vulture capitalists, and cut taxes - tax cuts which he sold to the public with the white identity politics poster girl of the welfare queen.
Who are the “rich men north of Richmond” of whom Mr. Anthony sings? Foxbots and the eight people on the debate stage last night apparently believe - and I have to assume they are right - that Mr. Anthony’s northern rich men are led by President Biden, the man who tried to forgive student loan debt, releasing young Americans from indentured servitude for the first thirty years of their post-college lives.
The true “rich men north of Richmond” are of course men like right wing corporate tool Leonard Leo, “the most powerful man in Washington,” per the Washington Post. Leo was recently bequeathed $1.6 billion by another rich man north of Richmond, Chicago electronics magnate Barre Seid — the largest single tranche of dark money ever passed from a private citizen to a political operative in American history.
Since the secret gift was revealed, researchers have been trying to figure out how Mr. Leo plans to spend this treasure. He appears to be spreading it around to organization that work to block or reverse every modest gain progressives win for the working people of America. He is also apparently under investigation for mishandling $100 million of it, in circular payments to himself and cronies. Even before he cashed the windfall, Leo was one of corporate America’s best friends in Washington. Better known for his crazed opposition to abortion, he was also packing the federal judiciary with men and women whose rulings are never in favor of the working class and who are shaping, via the courts, America into a high-tech Dickensian hell.
The truth is the US of the 1950s, the real days of American Greatness, the yore that MAGAs long to revive, were the heyday of unionized labor and high taxes. In 2016, as MAGA was rising, the Berkeley Economic Review published an essay called “Back When America Was Socialist.” It is full of facts and figures and graphs providing ample evidence that the days of American greatness were more like Denmark today. (I recommend everyone download and read it, in case you come across a MAGA-curious relative or friend who can still be reasoned with.)
In the 1950s and 1960s, the highest tax rate was 91 percent. Today, the top tax rate is 37 percent but the top one percent pay only 26.8 percent income tax on average, a grotesque re-ordering of power and a Biblical scale money-grab from the top, almost all of it engineered by Republican leaders.
And the working men whose dismal days Mr. Anthony sings of? He blames their plight on the rich men of Washington, instead of the party whose hero smashed the unions that once gave blue collar workers a level of dignity and security.
From Berkeley Economic Review:
Blue collar work that had once been unviable for a family lifestyle became sustainable throughout the 1950s and 60s. Manufacturing jobs allowed for a middle class income. Productivity abounded for such manufacturing. Mild business cycles meant more sustained income and greater satisfaction among laborers.
Because of strong labor unions and high tax rates on corporations and high income earners, the income generated by these productivity increases was broadly shared among business owners and their workers. Because labor unions were strong, they were able to negotiate wage increases that allowed workers to reap the benefits of the technology they were using which ensured more equitable distribution of income throughout corporations. Today, it is largely the shareholders and business owners that reap any benefits borne from increased productivity.
"Rich Men North of Richmond" is the second recent hit country hit/dog whistle of the summer. In “Try That in a Small Town,” Jason Aldean wink-winks at the sundown towns where Blacks had to be out before dark or be killed. What makes the song even more abhorrent is that Aldean was singing on stage in Las Vegas when a gunman who had exercised his 2A right to legally create a personal arsenal of machine guns, killed 58 and wounding almost 500 people - the worst mass shooting in America.
In "Small Town," Aldean celebrates the power of his inherited grampa’s gun to set things right if anyone (protestors, BLM, antifa?) drops by his small town to “cuss out a cop, spit in his face, stomp on the flag and light it up.”
Got a gun that my granddad gave me
They say one day they're gonna round up
Well, that shit might fly in the city, good luck
These are the lyrics set to the tunes that will soon score Trump’s second coronation by the Republican Party.
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Nina Burleigh is a a journalist, author, documentary producer, and publisher ofAmerican Political Freakshow, a Substack on politics. Her journalism has been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Airmail, and New York. She is the author of seven books including most recently Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America's Response to the Pandemic and an adjunct professor at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.