Donald Trump is often said to be unprecedented in American history, and in some respects he is. But not entirely.
There is one other demagogue in the age of mass democracy and mass media who paved the way for Trump. Though he never got all the way to the White House, he was for a period an immensely influential political figure. His contemporary, the American novelist Wallace Stenger, described him in terms that apply equally to Trump: “a shifty manipulator of the truth and a man ambitious for personal power”.
He, too, was a narcissist, a hate monger and a master manipulator of the media. The only reason he is largely forgotten is that he seems so incongruous a figure: a bespectacled, dog-collared Catholic priest who mesmerised the nation with his powerful but lyrical Irish voice.
Ironically, given Coughlin's later career, he was sent in to face down the challenge of the Ku Klux Klan which was trying to intimidate Catholic settlers
His name was Fr Charles Coughlin, though in the 1930s he was known to most people simply as “the Radio Priest”.
He was born in 1891 in Hamilton, Ontario, into a working-class Irish Catholic world. His father, Thomas, was sexton at St Mary’s church, where he met his future wife, Amelia Mahoney, from Strabane, Co Tyrone. It was presumably from her that their son got the Irish accent and intonation that remained so much a part of his brand as the most effective demagogue America had yet seen.
After his ordination and posting to Detroit, Coughlin enjoyed the patronage and unwavering support of his Irish-American bishop, Michael Gallagher. Gallagher, recognising his forceful personality and boundless self-confidence sent him into a new parish in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.
Ironically, given Coughlin's later career, he was sent in to face down the challenge of the Ku Klux Klan which was trying to intimidate Catholic settlers. The church in Royal Oak he called the Shrine of the Little Flower remained Coughlin's base throughout his tumultuous media and political career.
Coughlin combined attacks on socialism as a threat to civilization, with living-wage demands for workers and calls that the little people be saved from the financial elites
Coughlin showed an early genius for radio, the rapidly exploding new communications technology that was the 1920s equivalent of the internet in the 1990s. Another Irish-American, Leo Fitzpatrick, station manager at WJR Detroit, put Coughlin on air for the first time in 1926, initially broadcasting to children.
But by the beginning of the 1930s, Coughlin had found his voice as the original agitator of the airwaves, the first American shock jock. The historian Donald Warren calls him “the first public figure to obliterate the distinction between politics, religion, and mass media entertainment”.
As the Great Depression took hold, Coughlin combined attacks on Bolshevism and socialism as indistinguishable threats to civilization with demands that workers be paid a living wage and that the little people be saved from the machinations of the financial elites. It was a winning combination: by the autumn of 1930, Coughlin’s show was syndicated to most major American cities through the CBS network, giving him access to 40 million listeners.
He became a huge star: at its peak, his was probably the largest radio audience in the world. Fortune magazine called Coughlin “just about the biggest thing that ever happened to radio”.
While Coughlin's initial audience was Catholic, it soon encompassed desperate Americans of all faiths
Coughlin’s magnetism was in the sound of his Irish voice. Stegner evoked it in a brilliant essay published in 1949, The Radio Priest and His Flock: “His distinction [was] a voice of such mellow richness, such manly, heart-warming, confidential intimacy, such emotional and ingratiating charm, that anyone tuning past it almost automatically returned to hear it again.
“It was without doubt one of the greatest speaking voices of the twentieth century. Warmed by the touch of Irish brogue, it lingered over words and enriched their emotional content. It was a voice made for promises.”
While Coughlin’s initial audience was Catholic, it soon encompassed desperate Americans of all faiths. As Stegner put it, “Hillbillies from Kentucky, farmers from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois and Minnesota and the Dakotas, worried clerks in Chicago and Cleveland, unemployed stevedores in Boston and Brooklyn, sweatshop tailors in Rochester and New York, taxi drivers and school teachers, Gentile and Jew and Methodist and Hard-Shell Baptist, listened to that mellow brogue and were swept away”.
Coughlin had a narcissistic sense of his own unique destiny as America's saviour: 'I knew that if anyone was going to inform Americans of the truth it would have to be me"
Within weeks of his show going national, Coughlin had to employ 50 clerks to deal with his fan mail and the dollar bills sent by his poor but grateful listeners – by 1935 this staff had doubled. By then Coughlin was widely reported to be receiving more mail than anyone in the world. And from this mail, Coughlin pioneered the creation of a vast database of supporters and donors. By 1934, it had two million names and addresses.
It gave him enormous political influence and a personal fortune of almost a million dollars at his death in 1966. In the midst of the Great Depression, he was able to raise $800,000 (about $15 million now) to build a vast octagonal 2,600-seater church with an enormous 180-foot tower as a shrine to himself. As many as 30,000 visitors flocked to the shrine at weekends. Coughlin’s parents ran a thriving business on the grounds selling them rosary beads and pictures of their son.
Coughlin had a narcissistic sense of his own unique destiny as America’s saviour. While Trump would claim of America’s broken state that “only I can fix it”, Coughlin said that “I knew that if anyone was going to inform the American citizenry of the truth it would have to be me”.
But Coughlin’s propositions, like so many of Trump’s, never went beyond what Stegner called “vaguely radical-sounding generalities”. Thus, while Coughlin preached “a just, living wage for all labour”, he employed non-union labour on the building of his own vast shrine and embraced the fascist policy that unions should be fully under the control of the state.
As he shifted further to the right, organised labour became one of the principle targets of his attacks.
In 1932, Coughlin strongly supported Franklin D Roosevelt’s successful campaign for the presidency. But he was miffed when FDR did not include him in his inner circle of advisers. He began to see himself as the leader of the opposition to FDR – and for a period he really was.
In 1934 Coughlin founded his own political organisation, the National Union for Social Justice. He claimed eight million members but probably had half that number – still a phenomenal force. He began to denounce FDR as a communistic pagan, and as “the great betrayer and liar . . . Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt”. (Trump’s trick of giving his enemies belittling names was originally Coughlin’s.)
From 1933, Coughlin sought to initiate contact with both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler and clearly saw himself – in the way that Trump identifies with authoritarian strongmen like Vladimir Putin – as their US equivalent.
His problem, however, was that as a priest and a person of foreign (Canadian) birth, he could not himself run for the presidency. His other problem was FDR, who as well as speaking to the desperate voters with his New Deal, also spoke to them on the radio with something of Coughlin’s skill.
Coughlin was unfortunate to have an enemy who had learned – not least from himself – to use his own medium.
Coughlin ran his own candidate, the Dakota politician William Lemke, against FDR in 1936. But in a positively Trumpian moment, the nominating convention voted to declare Coughlin himself “the Greatest American of All Times” and resolved “that we give thanks to the mother of Reverend Charles E. Coughlin for bearing him”. It was obvious that they – and the voters – were not interested in a Coughlin surrogate. Fascist movements revolve around the great leader. FDR trounced Lemke at the polls.
Coughlin responded by stirring, as Trump did in 2016, naked prejudice.
His magazine, Social Justice, began serialising the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fake “proof” of Jewish plans for world domination, in early 1938.
After Kristallnacht in November, Coughlin explicitly told his listeners that German persecution of Jews was a justifiable defence against Communism. The Nazi programme, he said, aimed to “rid the Fatherland of Communists whose leaders, unfortunately, they identified with the Jewish race . . . Were there facts to substantiate this belief in the minds of the Nazi Party, I ask?”
Father Coughlin in Royal Oak, in the state of Michigan, has the courage to speak his conviction. His conviction is that National Socialism is right
Coughlin addressed a rally of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund in Madison Square Garden in 1939. The Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer recognised him as a fellow traveller: "Father Coughlin in Royal Oak, in the state of Michigan, has the courage to speak his conviction. His conviction is that National Socialism is right." His relationship to Germany had begun to presage Trump's relationship with Russia. Yet Coughlin retained the support of the Rupert Murdoch of the era, William Randolph Hearst, whose papers printed his speeches verbatim.
Coughlin even created his own paramilitary force, the Christian Front, which specialised in beating up Jews and vandalising their property. Its core membership was Irish Catholic though it also attracted some German and Italian immigrants enthused by the fascist regimes back home and, ironically, some members of the KKK. Jews feared with reason that Irish cops in New York and Boston supported Coughlin and were very slow to protect them against his followers.
In late 1939, Christian Front members in New York were convicted for demanding to see “every Jew in the United States hanged”. In January 1940, 17 others were arrested on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and a formidable arsenal was seized. Coughlin’s response was to insist that he was “neither the organiser nor the sponsor of the Christian Front”. But he added, in terms reminiscent of Trump calling neo-Nazis “fine people”: “However, if Christians as individuals or as groups desire to establish a Christian Front with the objective in mind of incorporating the spirit and the doctrines of Christianity into our social life, that is commendable.”
When war broke out in Europe, Coughlin strongly opposed FDR’s Lend Lease programme of aid to Britain and argued that Hitler should be allowed to get on with the job of crushing the Soviet Union. The war, he claimed, was a Jewish war: “Because Jewish international bankers own or control the gold of the world, it is their war.”
But when the US joined the war, Coughlin’s activities became intolerable. In 1942, FDR’s attorney general sent a prominent lay Catholic, Leo Crowley, to inform Coughlin’s new superior, Archbishop Edward Mooney, that the government would indict the priest unless he stepped away from politics. Coughlin, surprisingly, left the public stage and continued to work quietly as a parish priest until his death in 1966.
It would be well to remember that even a people like the Americans . . . can be brought to the point where millions of them will beg to be led
Seventy years ago, in 1949, Stenger warned his fellow Americans that they should remember how close Coughlin had come to real power in the 1930s: “It would be well to ponder the enormous following he had at his peak. It would be well to consider how vague, misty, unformed, contradictory and insincere his program was, and yet how it won the unstinting belief of hundreds of thousands, even millions. It would be well to remember that even a people like the Americans, supposedly very mature and with a long tradition of very great personal liberty, can be brought to the point where millions of them will beg to be led, and will blindly follow when a leader steps forward . . . It is not likely that Father Coughlin or any of his American imitators can ever again be more than public nuisances, vermin in the national woodwork. But let conditions again become as bad as they did in the deep thirties, and the vermin will reappear.”
Stenger was right to suggest that Americans should have remembered the extraordinary power a demagogue had obtained in their midst. But he was wrong to think that it would take conditions as bad as those of the Great Depression to call forth another one and propel him all the way to the Oval Office.
In Trump’s America, recordings of Coughlin’s lovely Irish voice are now popular on the internet, and his anti-Semitic speeches have approving comments appended to them on YouTube.
A typical one reads: “After we take our nation back from the foreign entities who hate us . . . I hope the Church declares him to be a Saint.”