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No More Bullshit Conservative Folk Heroes Please
Joe the Plumber, Oliver Anthony, and the astroturfing of the GOP everyman.
This week, two things happened which, when taken in tandem, offer an interesting case study in how the right wing creates astroturfed folk heroes.
Individually, neither event is all that noteworthy. Together, however, they demonstrate the remarkable consistency of an ongoing Republican project to elevate and exploit individuals it can point to as “authentically working class,” using them as mascots for a conservative enterprise whose ultimate endpoint is fucking over the very same people these confected heroes are supposed to represent.
On Sunday, conservative activist, onetime congressional candidate, and minor national notable Samuel Wurzelbacher died from complications due to pancreatic cancer at the age of 49. If the name is unfamiliar to you, perhaps you recognize his nom de grift: Joe The Plumber, the man whose brief lecture to then-candidate Barack Obama on the evils of taxing people who make a quarter million dollars a year earned him endless name-drops at the final 2008 presidential debate just three days later. Practically overnight, Wurzelbacher became a de facto figurehead among conservatives (and Democrats willing to accept a conservative premise) for the struggling middle class. That Joe The Plumber later revealed himself to be not a plumber, not a fan of labor, not great at paying taxes, and not a particularly nice person in general was of little relevance to the myth of Joe The Plumber that was sold to the public by Republicans as a supposed reflection of themselves—a party of ordinary folks just tryin’ to make this crazy world of ours a little easier for ordinary guys like Joe.
The irony here is that while Wurzelbacher was becoming less and less relevant as a national figure, the GOP was conversely becoming more and more like him: a party of mean, gun-loving isolationist xenophobes in a trend that would crest with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Had the conservative powers-that-be embraced the authentic Wurzelbacher, rather than rallying around — and then abandoning — their constructed character of “Joe The Plumber,” he would have been perfectly suited for this current era of politics. Instead, he’d been wrung out and relegated to the sidelines of right-wing celebrity just as his moment should have arrived.
Which brings me to the other thing that happened this week: Oliver Anthony, the ruddy-bearded singer behind the #1 hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond,” lashed out against “people on conservative news” who “try to identify with me, like I’m one of them.” He also criticized the Republicans who made his song the focus of their recent presidential debate (yes, very stupid history is repeating itself) “because,” he explained, “it’s like I wrote that song about those people.”
Unlike Wurzelbacher, whose benign, tax-focused facade ultimately gave way to a coarse slate of broad and basic prejudices, the broad and basic prejudice in Anthony’s music that Republicans hoped to capitalize on ended up being slightly more nuanced and elusive than they’d hoped. The right-wing whiplash and hissy fit over what they see as Anthony’s betrayal of their cause is as funny as it was predictable—and once again, the conservative desperation to create a working-class hero has ended in ruins.
Which isn’t to say that Anthony’s politics are all that good on their own — far from it. Appreciating what seems to be a genuine equal opportunity dislike for powerful capitalists doesn’t negate the fact that Anthony has peppered his music and social media with all sorts of right-wing conspiracy-mongering about stuff like who really did 9/11. Class consciousness notwithstanding, this guy hardly seems like a paragon of tolerance or subtlety. But in the same way that Joe The Plumber ended up being more important to Republicans as a fictional folk hero rather than a real person, Anthony’s… erm, complicated reality is impeding the conservative effort to capitalize on a manufactured persona not entirely of his own making.
It’s a virtual guarantee that, just like it took nearly two decades to go from Joe The Plumber to “Rich Men North of Richmond,” we’ll see other conservative astroturfed figureheads in the years to come. It’s hard to find real folk heroes these days — especially when the “folks” you’re hoping to appeal to are an increasingly insular nugget of directionless anger. Fortunately for Republicans, there’s no need to “find” folk heroes when they can just make them up whenever they want.