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The Alex Murdaugh verdict matters: No shame in being fascinated by this true crime

The trial of Alex Murdaugh, the scion of the famous (and infamous) South Carolina family that amassed generations of legal power, concluded last week. He was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole for the murders of his wife and son, Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. The whole thing was breathlessly covered on cable news. Sure enough, it was also breathlessly complained about by political pundits who believe there’s more “important” news that needs covering. 

Ah yes, why would cable news fixate on this truly bonkerballs string of crimes — corruption, fraud, drug abuse, and of course, murder — that would put any Southern gothic novel to shame? It hardly seems a mystery, especially when it seems that time spent not on this murder is instead dedicated to endless speculation about presidential primaries that are a year away and already have painfully predictable outcomes. (It’s Donald Trump and Joe Biden again, folks. Sorry to spoil the surprise.) And it’s not like they’re going to suddenly start having fruitful discussions on policy that will no doubt invite viewers to turn the channel. 

This was one situation that a rich white guy couldn’t blather his way out of.

Accusations of frivolity are something true crime fans have had to deal with for roughly forever. It’s a charge that has more than an air of sexism to it, as most such enthusiasts are women. But the Murdaugh case thoroughly exposes how wrong the “crime stories don’t matter” talking point is. The case cuts straight to the heart of so much of what is driving our current social-political climate, and in a more insightful way than most of the content the Beltway press is producing. (Oh boy, another interview with weaselly Trump voters in diners!) We’re in the midst of what is likely a decade, if not longer, of American crisis over exactly how much impunity we’ve allowed white men, especially those with money.

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Donald Trump attempted a coup that led to a violent insurrection and he is not in prison yet. (And may be president again!) Social media owners like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are profiting off the destruction of democracy, and there seems to be no check on their power. Sure, Harvey Weinstein finally went to prison, but the powers that protect pampered white men have come roaring back, shielding other accused abusers like Johnny Depp and Kevin Spacey from consequences. Endless whining about “cancel culture” and “wokeness” is the battle cry of white male privilege — they will never fold to the forces demanding accountability! 

The Murdaugh family story resonates because it’s so in tune with these societal concerns.

Men are always pissing on our legs and telling us it’s raining. We’re drowning in it. 

For those who haven’t followed it closely, it’s almost unbelievable how much this family got away with because they’re rich, white power brokers in the South. Even before Alex Murdaugh killed his wife and son, a housekeeper died at their house, and then, if you can believe it, Alex Murdaugh cheated her family out of over $4 million. There was also the possible murder of a 19-year-old gay kid near the Murdaugh home, with suspicions aimed at the family. And finally, there was the accidental killing of a 19-year-old girl in 2019, for which Paul Murdaugh was awaiting trial when he was killed. 

I watched chunks of Alex Murdaugh’s testimony when his lawyer put him on the stand. I’m not a legal expert, but like most Americans, I’m aware defendants rarely testify during their own trials. Clearly, however, Murdaugh and his lawyer hoped he could bullshit his way out of this situation. It wasn’t a baseless belief. Murdaugh has a long history of evading justice that suggests he could pull it off. So it wasn’t hard to draw the connection between Murdaugh and the endless stream of glib rich white guy liars we’re subjected to on a daily basis: Trump. Tucker Carlson. Steve Bannon. Ben Shapiro. Ron DeSantis. I could go on forever. Men are always pissing on our legs and telling us it’s raining. We’re drowning in it. 

But this was one situation that a rich white guy couldn’t blather his way out of, it seems.

“A good liar, but not good enough,” one juror told “Good Morning America” after the verdict was announced. The jury spent 45 minutes on deliberation. 

Trumpism, as a political movement, exists primarily to protect the privilege that people like Murdaugh coast on. From their whiny orange leader on down, it’s a coalition of people who see fairness and equality as a threat, and want to preserve whatever unfair advantages — be it from wealth, race, gender, or sexual orientation — that they have over others. So it was satisfying seeing, for once, that justice is done. It was almost cinematic watching Judge Clifton Newman — a Black son of a domestic worker who graduated from a segregated high school — issue the sentence. Newman spoke bluntly of how Murdaugh’s privilege still protected him. 

“Your family — including you — have been prosecuting people here in this courtroom, and many have received the death penalty, probably for lesser conduct,” Newman told Murdaugh. 

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The Murdaugh crimes aren’t from a novel, but they’re so rich with symbolism that you’d think Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner had invented them. A housekeeper, a gay teenager and a young woman just trying to have a good time. Those are the deaths connected to the family. They are also the kinds of vulnerable people that are currently under assault by an increasingly angry right wing that will brook no challenge to traditional power structures. 

Despite having one son still alive, Alex Murdaugh’s murders have echoes of other family annihilations. It is the most patriarchal of crimes, as most family annihilators are men who cannot stand the idea that their wives and children may have lives beyond what use they have to him. It also calls to mind the nihilism that fuels the MAGA movement, people who were willing to spread COVID-19, justify an attempted overthrow of democracy and who are currently calling for a “national divorce” (read: civil war). It’s the same impulse as family annihilation: If they can’t control the country, they’ll destroy it. 

Of course, as those who resent the heavy coverage of the Murdaugh trial will point out, this one case doesn’t change any of that. Watching Murdaugh finally pay doesn’t do much to put Trump in prison, much less take down the larger MAGA movement.  It’s just one dude who kept testing the bounds of his privilege and found, much to his apparent surprise, that it finally had a limit. But it doesn’t mean that the rest of the tyrannical, whiny brats who are tearing apart our country have run out of rope. 

To which I say, sure, there’s no direct line from this trial to other desired outcomes. But that doesn’t mean the public attention to this story is useless. People are drawn to stories over statistics because they provide the emotion and meaning that are often missing from drier discussions of policy and politics. Academic discourse about the function of privilege leaves people cold. The Murdaugh trial tells the same story in vivid colors, helping a lot more people put the pieces together. If it were just an isolated phenomenon, it might not mean much. But in the larger context of our moment in time, anything that educates is helpful. It plants seeds in people that may eventually grow into flowers. 

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