OPINION: The song Donald Trump’s GOP rivals need to hear before tonight’s debate

If the non-Donald Trump presidential candidates want to understand why they haven’t caught fire with the Republican grassroots yet, there’s a three-minute version of that eight-year story called “Rich Men North of Richmond” that they need to hear. And they should listen to it before the GOP debate tonight.

The populist anthem is an out-of-nowhere hit, released last week and suddenly the No.1 song in America according to the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

It features songwriter Oliver Anthony singing about “sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day, overtime hours for (expletive) pay.” But before you dismiss it as just another 5 o’clock, quittin’-time country song, consider the fact that it was also the talk of the GOP presidential conference in Atlanta this weekend hosted by conservative radio host Erick Erickson.

Guests and speakers alike mentioned the song over and over again as an example of what GOP voters need to hear more of from their candidates.

“There are communities in our state and other states that just feel like they’re left behind by the state capitol and by Washington,” Erickson said of the message of the lyrics.

Scott Parkinson, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Virginia, said it became an overnight success because so many people in the country feel like lobbyists and politicians in Washington are pulling a fast one on the American people.

“I think that there are issues that are resonating with the forgotten voter,” he said, before talking about ways Republicans can “attract people like Oliver Anthony to a political system that’s going to represent them, not the politically well-connected.”

The candidate who reaches that group of disaffected voters better than anyone else, of course, is Donald Trump. The villains in the song, the rich men north of Richmond, are the same ones that appear in the story that Trump tells about himself, with “the Washington elites,” “deranged Jack Smith,” the F.B.I., the DOJ, the IRS and all manner of RINOs coming after him.

“But they’re not really coming after me,” Trump says in his rallies, “They’re coming after you and I’m just in the way.”

Trump has even used the indictments against him as proof of his point, declaring it “an honor” to be indicted on behalf of his MAGA supporters.

The results for Trump have been what his rivals could only dream of — he’s surged ahead of the field in national polls with as much as 62% of Republican voters supporting him. The latest NBC News poll of Iowa voters showed Trump’s share of the vote jumped by seven points after the latest indictments against him in Fulton County.

If there is another candidate who comes close to replicating that connection with disaffected GOP voters right now it’s Vivek Ramaswamy, a 38-year-old biotech millionaire who has degrees from Harvard and Yale Law School.

Maybe because he grew up as the child of Indian immigrants in Ohio, Ramaswamy still talks more like a person in front of audiences than a collection of talking points. He got the loudest and longest standing ovation at the political conference this weekend. And Erickson introduced him by describing his surprising ascent toward the top of the polls, saying Ramaswamy had “caught lightning in a bottle.”

In his own remarks, Ramaswamy blamed “the fourth branch” of government, namely the federal bureaucracy, for dividing Americans for decades, not unlike Oliver Anthony’s song.

He talked about his plan to defeat “woke smoke” and lead a “national revival” and a new American revolution.

“I think the way we get to national unity is by actually embracing the radicalism and the extremism of the American founding ideals ourselves,” he said, adding later, “The idea that ‘we the people’ create a government that is accountable to us and not the other way around.”

The other candidates got strong responses, but nothing like the cheers that followed Ramaswamy out of the room.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talked about the many bills he’d passed in his state. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley highlighted her resume and foreign policy experience as U.N. Secretary under Trump. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott won over the crowd with his life story and tried to convince them that while he’s known as a nice and friendly man, he’s ready for a fight, too.

Mike Pence took a deep dive on the arcana of the federal budget, while Chris Christie hammered Trump for what he did on Jan. 6th.

But only Ramaswamy got people talking. As I was leaving the conference Saturday, a man in a Hummer pickup truck asked, “Hey, did you see ‘Vivek?’” The man wasn’t there for the conference, but he’d heard Ramaswamy was in the building. What did he like about him? I asked. “All that keep-government-out-of-my-business stuff…that’s for me,” he said.

“Rich Men North of Richmond” also goes out of its way to call out human trafficking, taxes, and welfare recipients. But underneath, it’s about a way of life people fear is going away.

In a video introducing himself to his newly curious fans, Anthony said the rich men north of Richmond in his song are the people in Washington who make life a little more difficult than it should be.

“I sit pretty dead center down the aisle on politics and always have….It seems like both sides serve the same master and that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country.”

If none of the other candidates break through against Trump, maybe the Republicans have a backup plan after all.

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