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Of Racist and Red Baiting Tropes and Misanthropes



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I employed a psalm by the songwriter Paul Simon in a recent Soundings to explore specific elements of the current character of the Republican Party in U.S. politics.  This essay analyzes the output of a very different writer to examine three tropes or memes that the GOP has employed with increasing aggressiveness in recent years to curry support among targeted Americans. I refer to Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” tune, which recently shot to number one on the Billboard Top 100 music chart in the United States on the strength of viral internet play.1

        Nominally, it is a protest song, but it is not in any traditional understanding of that term. Instead, Anthony’s effort focuses on conspiracy thinking and inveighs against unidentified elite individuals who reside in the “North,” claiming they are purportedly responsible for unfair policies and unjust living situations for an unidentified group of white (like Anthony) working class individuals who cannot get ahead in life. It also embraces a racist trope to delegitimate governance and government, a favored GOP claim. Finally, the song manifests another Republican meme that suggests that government is taking over our political economy at the expense of working people and in favor of socialism or communism.

        Invoking the first meme, the song’s lyrics suggest a ferocious hatred of an unspecified “elite:”           

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.2

        Fair enough, one might say, as the distribution of income and wealth in the United States has skewed to ever greater extremes in recent decades, with smaller numbers of Americans enjoying greater shares of the country’s wealth under the influence of globalization and the neoliberal economic view that doing so would place funds in the hands of capitalist “makers” who could invest it to make all Americans better off.3 It has not worked out that way, but the GOP continues to call for such policies as its leaders’ rail against so-called elites they claim are over taxing workers to provide unnecessary services aimed at those who are needy or vulnerable.4 According to Anthony, who apparently takes this contention at face value, those who work hard cannot get ahead because of these nefarious northern elites and their secretive and uncontrolled efforts to expropriate and control.

        This trope misleads and obscures profoundly.  First, the GOP has led a decades-long attack on unions and unionization that has given market actors broadly writ—not unidentified “rich northerners,” let along Democratic Party officials— virtually untrammeled power to control wages and to prevent improved benefits for millions of middle-and working-class individuals who now work in a precarity economy.5 The Republican Party, not an unspecified social elite, has led this assault, which has sought to maximize the discretion of owners versus laborers in the name of the alleged superiority of the latter to direct social resources. Unions, while hardly perfect institutions, historically constituted an effective source of bargaining power with capitalists on behalf of the working class, have been labeled by the GOP as everything from communist to solely self-dealing in efforts to undermine their legitimacy. That bombast has succeeded in recent decades. The perversity, however, is that, far from Anthony’s assertion that the concerns he describes are the product of northern elites, they rest in the bitter reality that the group most adversely affected by this situation has largely been persuaded by Republican officials to support it. This has occurred by that population’s willingness to believe that someone else is conspiring to hold them down, as Anthony notes in the lyrics to his song. The upshot has resulted in capitalists enjoying a highly privileged and unequal position of economic, social and political power that, if not unparalleled in American history, is surely noteworthy.

        Anthony also employs another insidious meme in his song that has long antecedents:

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.6

        This trope goes back at least to Reconstruction and is the essence of today’s central GOP claim that democratic government and governance are per se illegitimate and market actors should be given as much power and authority as possible to rule.7 This is so because assumed, but never defined, elites—always nominally associated with the opposing political party—are so willing to “take resources” via taxes from hard-working white males and give them to undeserving people of color who will use those funds to lay about, in Anthony’s telling, eating chocolate snack cakes. Southern plantation owners who were determined to reverse the rights the Civil War had accorded Black Americans, used this argument to assert that allowing those individuals the franchise would result in the election of leaders who would redistribute funds via taxation from deserving whites to ignorant and slothful Blacks.

        This meme is racist and was designed to play on empty claims of race-based hierarchy, fear of difference and of social status diminution by scapegoating an entire population. Moreover, factually, the assertion is nonsensical in substantive terms since far more whites than Blacks, for example, receive social support and such aid is in any case very difficult to attain. But this claim does not depend on facts; it seeks instead to mobilize angst and fear and racist assertions of inequality in a raw way. Anthony has shown himself more than willing to accept and proselytize for this vicious poison pill to make sense of what he perceives as his difficult social situation. This trope is beyond ugly, an obvious lie, and deeply corrosive of social bonds and of human rights and social and legal equality. But, for those promoting it and seeking to manipulate those willing to believe it, that situation is just fine, since it accords its purveyors social and political power.

        More, as Anthony has observed in discussing his work, “Rich Men North of Richmond” asserts that the value of the dollar is too low, for which there is no evidence, whatever he may mean. More importantly, he claims that those corrupt Northern elites are taxing nonelites too much so they can give away funds to undeserving individuals in an all-out effort to “control all,” or as he put this point, when describing his song,

The universal thing I see is no matter how much effort they put into whatever it is they're doing, they can't quite get ahead because the dollar's not worth enough, they are being over-taxed. [...] I want to be a voice for those people.8           

        This is the contention that many GOP officials, including Donald Trump, are now using to claim a priori and falsely, as some extremist Republican members in the House did recently, that massive cuts in the federal social services budget are necessary because the “nation cannot afford them.” Those leaders assumed this position despite the hypocrisy it represents, since during the Trump presidency they reduced taxes significantly, but in favor of the wealthiest citizens disproportionately, and showed no interest in such expenditure reductions. 

        Relatedly, Trump consistently labels his perceived opponents as socialists/communists who intend to impose an overweening and controlling socialist or communist government, despite a complete lack of evidence for this claim. Anthony has apparently chosen to believe this rhetoric too. Politico published an analysis this summer outlining the political aims of this tactic for Trump and his followers:

It’s no accident that Trump reacted to his arraignment in the classified documents case on June 13 by waving the bloody flag of communism and describing the threat it allegedly poses.
‘If the communists get away with this,’ he said in a speech later that day, “it won’t stop with me. They will not hesitate to ramp up their persecution of Christians, pro-life activists, parents attending school board meetings, and even future Republican candidates.’
It is noteworthy that in his post-indictment speech he linked what was happening to him with a litany of familiar, polarizing, conservative culture war issues. If they get me, he suggested to supporters, they will soon be after you. And that message seemed to get through, with some of his MAGA allies quickly joining Trump in blaming communists for his legal troubles. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, said the indictment was the product of ‘CORRUPT AND WEAPONIZED COMMUNISTS DEMOCRAT CONTROLLED DOJ.’9

        Like Anthony’s beliefs concerning welfare recipients, these claims are factuallyabsurd, but they appeal to those looking for someone to blame for their social situations or for the pace of social change, even as they serve the broader argument that market actors and not governments should be entrusted to make the lion’s share of decisions in society. Trump appears convinced that such Red Baiting and his related unfounded allegations of persecution will help to galvanize supporters and weld them to him in so doing. While the rhetoric may be ridiculous, its intention is not to persuade those targeted of the facts of the matter, but to whip up their fear and anger against anyone who would dare question Trump and his many and constantly asserted lies.

        In sum, Anthony’s recent hit “protest” song is a nearly perfect evocation of key tropes today being employed by the GOP to delegitimate democratic governance and especially the use of government to assist the most vulnerable or in efforts to further social equality.  The racist character of these claims (and of the song) is morally and ethically despicable, as is the repeated use of Red Baiting, when neither major political party is calling for anything like total government control or for public takeover of industry in the United States. These assertions serve the purpose of producing ire by blaming a subset of supposedly malfeasant “other” Americans and the nation’s most vulnerable and minority citizens, for the inequality and powerlessness wrought by decades of neoliberal policies. The outcome is a nation increasingly polarized against itself in service to a group of GOP officials and their allies who are willing to do and say anything to gain and maintain power.


1 Trust, Gary. “Oliver Antony Music’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” debuts at no. 1 on Billboard Top 100. Billboard, Aug. 21, 2023. Accessed Oct. 8, 2023; Anthony, Oliver. “Rich Men North of Richmond,” AZLyrics,, Accessed October 4, 2023. 

2 Anthony, “Rich Men,”

3 Flanigan, Jessica and Christopher Freiman. “Wealth without Limits: In Defense of Billionaires,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, November 23, 2022, 25(5): 755-775.  doi: 10.1007/s10677-022-10327-3

4 Staff, “Government Shutdown: Right Wing Pushes Government Toward a Shutdown,” The New York Times, October 1, 2023, Accessed October 11, 2023,, Accessed October 1, 2023. 

5 Mahmud, Tayyab. “Precarious Existence and Capitalism: A Permanent State of Exception,” Southwestern Law Review, 44,pp. 699-726,, Accessed October 2, 2023.  

6 Anthony, “Rich Men,”

7 Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters From An American, August 6, 2022,, Accessed October 4, 2023. 

8 Anthony, “Rich Men,”

9 Sarat, Austin. “Why Donald Trump Says His Enemies are ‘Communists,’” Politico Magazine, June 22,2023,, Accessed October 1, 2023.  

Publication Date

October 9, 2023