Overnight Sensation ‘The Rich Men North of Richmond’ isn’t Just a Window into a Forgotten America — It’s an Invitation into a Worldview

Oliver Anthony. Image: YouTube/radiowv

An anthem is more than a song. An anthem is a representation of a people or a movement. It exemplifies how those with a shared identity or history or experience see the world, understand their struggles, and hope for the future. Anthems are historically full of affirmation and joy. They recount hardship and tragedyand the ways they were, or will be, overcome. 

Oliver Anthony’s “The Rich Men North of Richmond” is being called the new anthem of the American Right. The song has gone viral, currently sitting at the top of the Country Music charts. Anthony is an overnight sensation. According to the Los Angeles Times

The Farmville, Va., singer — said to be a farmer living off the grid with his three dogs — has quickly racked up 1.9 million streams on Spotify. A video of him performing it that was posted on YouTube by a local indie channel has amassed more than 13 million views in less than a week. The song also hit No. 1 on the all-genre iTunes chart.

Anthony’s voice isn’t so much textured, as it is unmediated. His vocals are laid over a single guitar with no accompaniment from other instruments. In many ways, the song’s appeal comes down to what it cuts out—the production of a professional studio, the complexity of a melange of instruments or voices—in order to allow Anthony’s screeching cry to overpower anything in its range. 

Many in MAGA Nation and other conservative circles have taken notice. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted: “This is the anthem of the forgotten Americans who truly support this nation and unfortunately the world with their hard-earned tax dollars and incredibly hard work.”

Not to be outdone, former news anchor and failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake added

I can’t listen to Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” without getting chills. It’s raw, it’s true, & it’s touching the hearts of men & women across this great nation.

The praise hasn’t been limited to political provocateurs. Charles Lipson, writing for Real Clear Politics, concludes: 

Whatever you think about populism, left or right, the lyrics are worth paying attention to. In those three minutes, you’ll learn more about the anti-Washington grievances than in hours of reading erudite analysis by journalists who visited flyover country from their homes in Georgetown, Cambridge, and newly fashionable Brooklyn. 

(Lipson’s observation may be accurate, but Brooklyn has been fashionable for more than a quarter century at this point.) 

If “The Rich Men North of Richmond” is an anthem that represents the “forgotten Americans” that Greene and others claim to represent; if it is a populist lamentation that provides a window into conservative America, then what exactly can we learn by looking into its lyrics?

The song begins with a common refrain in American music: the working class have been left out of the American Dream. They work for low wages, wasting life away for a corporate overlord, and wonder if any of it is worth it. 

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

These sentiments aren’t new. For half a century the likes of Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen have sung about the plight of the White working class and given voice to their struggles. Of course, the category of “working class” has been used throughout American history to describe White people. In reality, the American working class is racially diverse, and includes many BIPOC people. The 2021 American Community Survey shows: “Black, Hispanic, and other workers of color make up 45 percent of the working class, while non-Hispanic white workers comprise the remaining 55 percent.” 

But, as we shall see, the song doesn’t seem to be addressed to all working people, much less all those who have been left out of the American Dream. The opening of the song isn’t its heart. It’s an invitation into a worldview. An open hand signaling to the listener that they’re in welcoming and familiar territory as an everyday, “forgotten” American. 

The next lines begin to contour the song’s diagnosis of the American condition: 

It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to

For people like me and people like you

Wish I could just wake up and it not be true

But it is, oh, it is. 

With these lines, Anthony divides the world. It’s now a lament for “people like me and people like you,” which begs a set of questions: Who are we? Who are they? And what did they do to make the world so bad for us? Anthony begins providing answers in the next verse: 

Livin’ in the new world

With an old soul

These rich men north of Richmond

Lord knows they all just wanna have total control

Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do

And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do

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

‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond

The first time I heard the song, the lines “livin’ in the new world/With an old soul,” struck me. Sure, this could be a longing for the good old days couched in a trite verse about having an old soul. But given the right-wing slobber fest over the song, I couldn’t help but think that this is a dog whistle for a litany of conspiracies that decry the “new world order” and the “globalists” who are supposedly implementing it in order to destroy American life as we know it. And, lo and behold, journalists and Internet sleuths discovered that one of Anthony’s public playlists contains a number of videos propagating 9/11 trutherism, antisemitic tropes, and Q-adjacent conspiracies, as Ernie Piper at the Daily Dot observes:

One of the singer’s public playlists on his YouTube channel, “videos to make your noggin get bigger,” contains several videos that promote 9/11 trutherism and COVID-19 conspiracy theories. There is a video that features Richard Gage, the founder of the conspiracy group Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, speculating about the financial benefactors from the Twin Towers’ collapse. 

The theme of an evil new world order run by craven elites is extended in the next verse: 

I wish politicians would look out for miners

And not just minors on an island somewhere. 

This is a reference to Jeffrey Epstein’s island (which for the record was a place of unspeakable atrocities). However, the idea of child trafficking is now a conspiracy haven. When asked about his political views, “Anthony explained in a video introducing himself that he believed that pedophilia was ‘becoming normalized,’ a dog whistle in far-right QAnon circles, which believe former President Donald Trump is secretly fighting a cabal of Democratic sex perverts.” 

We’ve come a long way in one verse. Instead of a song that expresses the frustration and anger that the working class faces, such as in Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” we’re now firmly in the territory of conspiracy and resentment. 

The division between “people like me and you” and “others” gets more specific as the song goes on. In the final verse, Anthony decries the “300 pound” people living on 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

It’s hard not to read “welfare” as code. Welfare has long been used in conservative circles as a dog whistle for Black people, immigrants, and others who are supposedly too lazy to work and thus draining the life from our society. The idea of the “welfare queen,” a single Black urban mother, was introduced by Ronald Reagan in 1976: 

“At a campaign rally in 1976, Ronald Reagan introduced the welfare queen into the public conversation about poverty. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan’s caricature of the “welfare queen” cemented it in the American imaginary

By the time the “welfare queen” finally emerged on the national stage, the American public was primed for a face to be attached to the perceived waste, fraud, and abuse they saw as enabled by indulgent government programs and absent accountability. 

In a song supposedly about the plight of the working class—one whose title is about rich men in Washington, D.C.—it’s surprising, but not shocking to find the most specific and angry lyrics directed not at the elite, but those on government assistance. It’s surprising because the lyrics betray the title, but it’s not shocking because the American Right has long distracted its rank and file from unprecedented income inequality and insufficient wages by directing their anger to those who are supposedly ruining America by living off its dream. Galvanize support for a trust fund billionaire by pointing to the people who are most vulnerable and labeling them lazy parasites. 

So if this is the new anthem of the Right, what does it teach us about their struggles, virtues, and hopes? Conservative Chris Buskirk argues that it’s instructive of how real Americans see the world: 

It will be tempting for partisans to attempt to dragoon Anthony and his music into political service, but that misses the point. He’s a poet, not a politician, and he’s singing about the world he knows. . . . Anthony’s song is about life: his own life and the life lived by a lot of people today. 

What’s difficult to ignore in the midst of analyses like this is just how little of Anthony’s life or world there is in the song. No descriptions of his home or land or community; no celebration of a way of life that’s been taken away; no encouragement to keep fighting in order to maintain the beauty and virtues of his people; and no promise to never give up in the face of hardship. The anthem of the Right offers very little in the way of affirmation or joy or virtue. 

Instead, the window we get into this world via “The Rich Men of North Richmond” is one of grievance. There is nothing to build. Nothing to cultivate. Nothing to celebrate. Just a list of conspiracies, and threatening “others,” and vague references to government overreach. If this is the anthem of the Right, then it’s easy to conclude that the Right has nothing to offer but resentment with no attendant vision of human flourishing. 

So, what should we do about it? Nonpartisan pollster Patrick Ruffini posed a version of this questionWhat’s the left’s answer to this?suggesting, ostensibly, that its ability to transcend politics presents something of a challenge.

But in response my colleague Zach Malm said it best: “Conservatives don’t create culture, they react to it. There doesn’t need to be an ‘answer’ from ‘the left’ to this, because it’s not a conversation.”