Why Sen. Chris Murphy Praised A Conservative Viral Hit

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) raised some eyebrows on Monday when he recommended that progressives keep an open mind about “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the country song by Oliver Anthony that became an overnight hit among conservatives last week.

In a video now viewed millions of times, Anthony’s acoustic ballad expresses anger with a life dictated by “overtime hours for bullshit pay,” while government officials in Washington saddle workers with too-high taxes that finance “the obese milkin’ welfare.”

Murphy did not endorse Anthony’s vitriol for welfare recipients or taxes, but instead suggested that progressives should “listen” to the song because it is “just a good tune,” and because it could provide insight into the anti-elite sentiment fueling right-wing populism.

The song “shows the path of realignment,” Murphy posted Tuesday morning on X, the social media application formerly known as Twitter. “Anthony sings about the soullessness of work, shit wages and the power of the elites. All problems the left has better solutions to than the right.”

Murphy, a mainstream progressive known for dovish foreign policy views and stricter gun control, replied to his first post with a second message linking to left-wing labor reporter Hamilton Nolan’s essay about the song. Nolan, like Murphy, maintains that Anthony is giving voice to legitimate anger while identifying the wrong culprits. “The capitalist class relies on workers pointing the finger at government programs and welfare recipients, so that popular rage can flow away from the rich,” according to Nolan.

“Don’t agree [with] all of Nolan’s piece,” Murphy wrote. “But he does a good job at identifying the problem with the song’s focus on taxes and food stamps as the primary enemy.”

That explanation wasn’t enough to assuage Murphy’s mostly left-of-center critics, who expressed indignation at the suggestion that the song had even accidental political merit. It surely didn’t help that Murphy registered his commentary by quoting right-wing influencer Benny Johnson’s Friday post where he shared the video. Johnson claimed the video had already gone viral, and his post only amplified it further, attracting 5.9 million views as of Monday afternoon.

In addition to the offense of “favorably quote tweeting ultra ding dong Benny Johnson,” Murphy’s Democratic detractors accused him of failing to acknowledge the song’s verses stereotyping welfare recipients as fat and lazy, fetishizing the rural white working class, falling for a propaganda bit secretly engineered in a conservative think tank, giving credence to a pro-Confederate “dog whistle,” and elevating someone who apparently indulges antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Many of Murphy’s liberal critics are influential online or in Democratic Party politics. Kaivan Shroff, a Democratic attorney and activist with more than 117,000 followers on X, declared, “It’s gross for you to amplify hate group Turning Point USA’s Benny Johnson.”

Eric Kleefeld, a senior writer for the liberal media watchdog, Media Matters for America, asked, “Anybody out there willing to primary Chris Murphy, before he accidentally becomes a total horse-shoe bro?”

Louis Peitzman, editor-in-chief of news outlet Best Life, deadpanned, “Did you fall and hit your head.”

Murpy’s haters are, of course, well within their rights to argue that Murphy is naive about the potential for persuading people like Anthony, or building a populist coalition with politicians sympathetic to Anthony’s worldview. And these critics are correct to note that Anthony’s YouTube playlist entitled, “Videos that make your noggin bigger,” contains two conspiratorial clips about five Israelis reportedly dancing on a rooftop within view of the Twin Towers as they burned on Sept. 11, 2001. (The story about the Israelis on a rooftop, though based on a true event, has been falsely seized as evidence of Israeli involvement in the terror attack.)

But Murphy’s critics should also give him the respect of engaging with Murphy’s social media posts in the context of his entire analysis on the subject. Murphy’s commentary on “Rich Men North of Richmond,” as well as a visit he recently paid to Boone, North Carolina, to participate in a discussion about how neoliberal policies are affecting Appalachia, are part of a broader effort to connect populist economic ideas to the country’s social and emotional ills.

Last year, Murphy consumed right-wing media and literature, in a bid to understand how sometimes racist and misogynist social media influencers, thinkers and politicians appeal to young men seeking meaning, community and answers to their problems.

In response to his findings, Murphy, who shepherded passage of a bipartisan gun safety law that focused mainly on improving mental health, embarked on a media tour earlier this year to raise awareness of the United States’ loneliness crisis ― and how that crisis is affecting politics.

Although Murphy was not available for an interview on Monday, he told HuffPost in April that he sees the far right offering an “off-ramp” for the anger gripping many young men, and calls for progressives to engage with that anger and provide an alternative.

“I think folks who end up being attracted to these hate groups could be offered a much more constructive identity or a much more constructive set of connections,” he said. “But they don’t see that often.”

Murphy believes that working-class people on the political right and left have more in common with one another than elites on either side of the aisle. He also thinks that progressives like him can collaborate with right-wing populists like Republican Sens. J.D. Vance (Ohio) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) on select issues like trade and antitrust policy.

That’s likely what Murphy meant when he said that Anthony’s song shows the “path to realignment” ― a reorganization of politics based on shared skepticism of corporate power.

“If you study the developing New Right inside the conservative movement, you’ll see early signs of a potential realignment amongst people in this country who may not share the same views on abortion or civil rights, but who do believe that our economy and the state of American kids and families have become so unhealthy that government has to take some new action,” Murphy said in April.

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