Oliver Anthony’s beautiful, angry song about the people who run roughshod over ordinary Americans and seek to control their lives is the clearest expression of populism since Donald Trump used his own voice to reshape the Republican Party.
Although the title refers to “rich men” and makes a great rhyme, it is also a screed against control by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, who live in Washington and its wealthy Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs. “They all just want to have total control.” It is a powerful hymn to the forgotten, put-upon working man, sung with a full-throated, gravelly voice and accompanied solely by Anthony’s acoustic, resonator guitar.
The lyrics are as moving and authentic as Anthony’s voice. There’s a reason his song has become the most downloaded one on the Internet.
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.
The heart of Anthony’s lament is this:
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just want to 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
It’s a battle cry for people who want to resist the control of big money and big government but know they are losing the fight. They resent being investigated by the FBI as potential terrorists when they speak out at school board meetings or affiliate with a traditional branch of the Catholic Church. They see a government eager to prosecute political candidates from one party but not the other. They see violent street riots go unprosecuted and the southern border left open in violation of the law, fairness, and public safety. They see their children shut out of public schools for over a year by teachers unions and so-called experts with more power than evidence.
Their populist cry stretches back to Andrew Jackson and often veers into extremism and attacks on weak, marginal communities, as well as the rich. That’s a legitimate fear, rooted in historical experience of attacks on blacks, Jews, and immigrants.
Anthony’s song has no touch of that nasty message. But you can bet that he will soon be accused of xenophobia, racism, and all the rest of it, now that the song is popular. The people who will dump that sludge at the New York Times and on cable channels are the same people Anthony is targeting. They will use their megaphones to damn him.
It’s impossible to understand the popularity of “Rich Men North of Richmond” without understanding the widely shared grievances behind it. Anthony voices one of them as, “I wish politicians would look out for miners, and not just minors on an island somewhere.” You don’t have to love coal-fired electric power plants to have sympathy for the people who have lost their jobs, their hope, and their future.
Hillary Clinton bluntly expressed the contempt Anthony rails against when she said (in 2016), “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She devoted a whole chapter of her memoir to regretting she had said it.
Joe Biden didn’t learn Hillary’s lesson. He spoke about coal miners’ future in December 2019 when he visited the mining town of Derry, New Hampshire. He acknowledged the tough times they faced and offered a piece of unsolicited advice, “Anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can sure as hell learn to program as well … Anybody who can throw coal into a furnace can learn how to program, for God’s sake!” His comment “was met with silence from the audience.”
How do we know that? Because a Washington Post reporter, Dave Weigel, posted it on Twitter. His newspaper never ran that quote. His editors must have known how dumb it was, and the Washington Post was there to protect him. This is the same news organization that proclaims every day that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” What they lack in self-awareness, they make up for in pretentiousness. Oliver Anthony is singing about them.
His song’s most brilliant line is the one contrasting miners and “minors on an island somewhere.” Ask yourself the question Anthony is implicitly asking, “Whatever happened to the pedophiles on Jeffrey Epstein’s private island or at his homes in Palm Beach or New Mexico?” The answer is “nothing happened to them.” Do we even know anything about who they were? No. Federal prosecutors, who leak like sieves whenever it helps their case, are mum.
Why this silence? The song gives a compelling reason. The people who visited the island are rich and powerful, and so are their friends in government. How many criminal charges have been filed, aside from Epstein’s now-convicted accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell? None. Just ask Oliver Anthony why.
His anguished conclusion follows naturally:
Lord, 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
A whole lot of people agree, and they’re not passive. They’re furious. Oliver Anthony is the eloquent voice of that fury.