Oliver Anthony and the Incoherence of Right-Wing Populism

Photo: radiowv/YouTube

Over the weekend, an obscure Virginia country singer became a conservative folk hero and progressive hate object. Oliver Anthony’s overnight transformation into the bard of red America has already attracted a great deal of commentary, some of it worthwhile, much of it not.

For some on the left, the seemingly broad appeal of Anthony’s bitter anthem, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” is wholly illusory and the singer himself is worthy of contempt. After all, conservative influencers Matt Walsh and Jack Posobiec shared the song at nearly the same time, indicating a concerted right-wing campaign to propel Anthony to stardom. Meanwhile, the singer voices cruel, reactionary sentiments about the poor and obese and is therefore deserving of cruel mockery himself.

But the notion that Anthony’s viral success owes nothing to his song and everything to the machinations of conservative apparatchiks is a bit odd. I have no insight into whether Anthony organically came onto the radar of right-wing commentators, who then used their clout to promote him, or was somehow recruited for a meticulously planned propaganda operation. Regardless, it is not as though Matt Walsh has the power to mint chart-topping country songs at will. If he did, he’d be in a different and more lucrative line of work. The music industry is perpetually trying to “Astroturf” hits through concerted and expensive promotional campaigns. It does not always work. Anthony’s song would not have gone viral if it lacked genuine appeal.

As to the nature of that appeal, I suspect that Jay Caspian Kang is right and conservatives are wrong: Anthony’s popularity is driven less by widespread sympathy for his song’s jabs at obese welfare recipients and more by the combination of his singing voice’s real merits and the widespread delight that people take in the very concept of an overnight sensation. As Kang notes, Anthony provides listeners with the same thrill as a standout American Idol contestant, offering both the novelty of “seeing someone make it” and “the reassurance that there are talented people all over this country who sing in anonymity and who do not bend themselves to fit every musical trend.”

The question of whether to treat writers of reactionary folk songs with contempt is a normative one, about which reasonable people may disagree. Certainly, I can understand why those who have suffered from fatphobia or our nation’s austere safety net would be disinclined to treat Anthony with charity. But I think a foundational premise of progressive politics is that individuals are largely the products of specific social conditions and, therefore, lack sole ownership of either their virtues or pathologies. Neither the esteemed surgeon’s skills nor the disadvantaged teen’s criminal record emerged fully formed from each’s innate character. Rather, an individual’s likelihood of ending up in a prestigious, well-paid profession or in juvenile detention is heavily influenced by factors wholly out of their control: the families and communities into which they were born, the historical legacies of segregation and deindustrialization, etc.

Similarly, an individual born into a rural southern town in contemporary America is considerably more likely to glom onto reactionary populist sentiments than one born into, say, a highly educated northeastern suburb. This is not to say that there are no white working-class people in the South with progressive politics; there are millions of them. But just as the fact that the overwhelming majority of impoverished people in disadvantaged communities are law-abiding does not negate the relevance of inequality to urban gun violence, so the existence of progressives in the rural South does not negate the relevance of environmental factors to reactionary ideation. The fact that I have more progressive views than Anthony likely reflects our disparate social circumstances more than our disparate levels of innate virtue.

Today, white working-class people in rural areas are far more likely to get their political information from Fox News and right-wing talk radio than from a trade union. Anthony’s song does a decent job of articulating the muddled ideology that arises from this circumstance. On the one hand, the white southern worker’s experience of exploitative working conditions often leaves a residue of class-based resentment. On the other hand, their socially conservative communities are attached to a political movement that is committed to perpetuating class inequality. The result is an incoherent form of populism that directs class resentment at targets that do not threaten the fundamental interests of rich men (whether they live north or south of Richmond).

The people beholden to this ideology do not warrant scorn. But as Anthony’s song well demonstrates, right-wing populism generally does.

“Rich Men North of Richmond” begins with a straightforward protest of exploitative labor conditions, as Anthony sings:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day

Overtime hours for bullshit pay

So I can sit out here and waste my life away

Drag back home and drown my troubles away

As Noah Smith observes, Anthony’s complaint here is well founded. The singer was formerly a factory worker. And manufacturing wages have stagnated over the past two decades — in Virginia, they are actually lower today (in inflation-adjusted terms) than they were in 2010. In other words, the pay is indeed “bullshit.”

Resentment of inequality and the precariousness of working-class life pervades the rest of the song too. But Anthony persistently channels these resentments away from the bosses and shareholders who profited off his ill-compensated labor and onto targets sanctioned by conservative orthodoxy: Tax-hiking politicians, pedophilic cabals, and obese welfare moochers.

’Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end

’Cause of rich men north of Richmond

I wish politicians would look out for miners

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

Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds

Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds

Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground

’Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down

Lord, it’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to

For people like me and people like you

Here, we see right-wing populism’s rich repertoire of techniques for deflecting working-class resentments away from the core interests of inequality’s beneficiaries. The ideology affirms the worker’s intuition that an elite is both benefiting from and perpetuating their exploitation. But it suggests that the problem is not the outsize power of economic elites writ large but rather the pathologies of a subset of elites. It is ambiguous whether “rich men north of Richmond” is meant to refer exclusively to wealthy politicians in Washington, D.C., or to the northern elite more generally. In any case, right-wing populism tends to villainize political elites, rather than economic ones, and those who are culturally alien (by virtue of their cosmopolitan values and urban lifestyles) rather than those who are economically proximate (e.g., one’s boss).

The ideology also suggests that the plight of working people is in no small part a function of the shiftlessness of the jobless poor. This sentiment can have visceral resonance as rural, working-class people sometimes know individuals whose personal failings lead them to become uninterested in seeking work (they far less commonly encounter jobless trust-fund kids). Meanwhile, means-tested social programs can sometimes inspire downward-looking class envy, as Medicaid recipients may end up with more secure health-care coverage than those who earn just above the threshold for eligibility.

Of course, in the U.S. — and particularly in the South — downward-looking class resentment is routinely interlaced with racial animus. Anthony insistently draws a distinction between those who are beaten down and deserving of help and those who are merely “milking welfare.” This raises questions about what precisely he means by “people like me and people like you.” The sphere of the virtuous that includes Anthony and his target listener might not be racially defined; you can find contempt for “white trash” among light-skinned, working-class people. But it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a color line divides those who deserve more to eat from those who deserve less, at least in the song’s account.

Regardless, right-wing populism in the United States has long exploited white resentment of undeserving minorities. As the political analyst John Judis has argued, this is more or less what distinguishes right populism from the left variety: Whereas left populism posits a binary between the people and the elites, right populism conjures a three-part division of society between “the people,” the elites, and the undeserving others whom the elites coddle at the people’s expense.

Finally, right-wing populism tends to channel anti-elite sentiments toward conspiracy theories with few practical implications for public policy. Anthony’s apparent allusion to Jeffrey Epstein’s facilitation of the sexual predation of underaged girls by wealthy elites (“I wish politicians would look out for miners / And not just minors on an island somewhere”) is indicative of this. Of course, it is not false that a bunch of elites in Epstein’s orbit participated in the sexual trafficking and exploitation of minors. But the idea that politicians in general are more interested in having sex with children than aiding miners is not well substantiated. In fact, last year, every Democrat in Congress voted for legislation that ensured permanent funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which pays out $149 million in benefits for miners suffering from black-lung disease. Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, meanwhile, provided $200 million in new funding for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Finally, $4 billion of the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean-energy funding is reserved exclusively for projects in communities with closed coal mines or retired coal power plants so as to provide employment opportunities for jobless miners. By contrast, there is no public evidence that any Democrat in Congress or the White House traveled to a private island with Jeffrey Epstein.

The song’s other gripes are similarly ill-founded. America’s tax code certainly could be more progressive. But tax rates paid by working-class people in the U.S. are not especially high by either historical or international standards. And the “rich men” who currently hold power in D.C. have increased taxes only on the rich. Indeed, no one in D.C. has raised taxes on working-class households in a very long time.

U.S. workers absolutely have cause for complaint with our nation’s fiscal policies. Labor income is taxed more aggressively than capital gains in the U.S. America’s unemployment benefits are unusually low, its aid to families with small children exceptionally meager; its investments in job training and active-labor market policies are scant. But cutting taxes on working-class households would not do much to mitigate these problems, especially if they come packaged with tax cuts for the wealthy and thus erode the government’s capacity to provide public goods. And the Republican Party generally ensures that the rich enjoy the lion’s share of any tax cut.

Denying welfare benefits to the supposedly undeserving poor, meanwhile, would do little to mitigate the American public’s aggregate tax burden. The vast majority of recipients of means-tested social-welfare benefits work, while those outside the labor force generally contribute to the economy by enhancing their skills through higher education or providing care to children or the elderly. A good portion of the remainder suffers from a disability. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 93 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries between 19 and 64 years old fall into one of those categories. As for that remaining 7 percent: Giving people access to health-care coverage makes them more likely to obtain and maintain employment.

Since the population of nonworking poor is so small, attempts to crackdown on welfare “milkers” tend to hurt more working people than willfully jobless ones. When Arkansas imposed work requirements on its Medicaid beneficiaries in 2018, nearly 16,000 low-income Arkansans lost their health coverage. Only 1,232 of those individuals were actually nonworking. The rest were the very kinds of workers whose plight Anthony ostensibly champions (those working for “bullshit pay”). These laborers lost their health care for the crime of failing to cobble together the paperwork necessary for proving to government bureaucrats that they were employed.

Of course, Anthony’s song does not actually proselytize for imposing work requirements on welfare benefits. But to the extent that complaints about welfare moochers invite any concrete policy prescription, it measures that objectively hurt working people.

Americans who are “selling their souls” for “bullshit pay” deserve a politics that prioritizes their interests over those of the wealthy. Building that sort of politics requires working people to form solidaristic bonds across divisions of race and employment status and to resent concentrated economic power more than government authority. Right-wing populism exists to prevent them from doing just that. So long as alienated laborers direct their outrage at overweight food-stamp recipients instead of union-busting employers, rich men north and south of Richmond will continue to wield outsize influence over American life.

Oliver Anthony and the Incoherence of Right-Wing Populism