Father Coughlin, Hate Radio, and Trump

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By Craine, Detroit — Photo by Craine, Detroit, Via Library of Congress website LC-USZ62–38494; cph 3a38845 ; cropped and converted from TIFF to .jpg before uploading, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6637122

I still remember the day one of my professors introduced me to Father Charles Coughlin. It was in the early 1990s after Bill Clinton took over the Presidency. We were drinking bad cafeteria college coffee, at an outside table on campus. It was a cold November day, and we were discussing Michelle Foucault and deconstruction. We could not be engaged in a more arcane subject when we heard the voice of Rush Limbaugh come from a handheld radio set.

The radio was a cheap portable set, battery operated. It belonged to one of the many groundskeepers that swept the grounds due to the early fall leaves. We turned to where this man worked, he wore Dickies khaki coveralls, and he nodded as the words from Limbaugh filled the air. This was early Limbaugh, accusing Clinton of killing Vince Foster, and how he was going to give stuff to minorities, keep open borders, and change the country for the worst. The legacy of Ronald Reagan was at risk. The socialist in the White House was just short of a traitor. Oh never mind that Rush would have this man deported since the groundskeeper was Mexican looking, and he spoke Spanish to his crew.

The internal inconsistencies that we see with the target audiences of hate radio are intense. How could a person agree with Limbaugh? It is not unlike a Jew listening to Father Coughlin and agreeing with him and some did. They were poor, and while they feared the deep antisemitism, they agreed with the economic message.

And it is this how I first learned of the father of hate radio. At his peak, Coughlin had a larger audience than Limbaugh proportionally speaking. Without Coughlin and his media empire, the 700 Club, and the Christian Right might not have come. This little media empire was incredibly influential. His model, demonizing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for being in the hands of the Jews, or worst, a Jew himself, was to be recycled. Limbaugh engaged in the politics of personal destruction. Jerry Falwell built a religious movement, of virtue and Whiteness, and Donald Trump told us Barack Obama could not be born in the United States, ergo, could not be president.

These themes were first explored and developed by people like Coughlin. That conversation over cheap coffee led to an exploration into this man. I mostly forgot about the radio priest. It was not a matter that I researched in depth after college. Yet, he is far more relevant today, than he’s even in decades. It was his methods that were adopted by the fire and brimstone propagandists of the Clinton years. His voice and you can find the original recordings, or printed copies of his speeches, resonate across the decades. He was not able to run for President. He was born in Canada after all. And his movement was large, yet never captured a major political party. The seeds and the methodology are present today. And the irony is that his inspiration is the exact same Klan that burned a cross outside his church that the father of the President of the United States belonged to.

Fred Trump being a member of the Klan was not that unusual at the time. Many Americans joined organizations that became a clear and present danger to the government. Of course, the Federal Bureau do Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover was far more concerned with the threat of communists and socialists (back then they knew the difference) than the ever-present far right. Even in that, we are living in a similar moment. Our current FBI is far more troubled about terrorists than the internal fires growing among the far right. This is even after a week of far-right terrorism.

We find ourselves in a dark place. This moment is hardly new or unprecedented In American history. We have lived through very dark days as a nation before. Some of them unified us, others lay the groundwork for the present moment. Some…we’d rather not remember, because they tell us of the dark instincts that we have lived through. They include slavery and the genocide of the first peoples. Instead, We created a series of myths that allow us to forget reality, and create fantasy. This allows us to live outside history. Among them, manifest destiny and American exceptionalism are especially toxic to the present crisis. This allows us to collectively hide our heads in the sand, and ignore the bright red lights and the wailing alarms. Two things are under threat, liberal democracy, and the viability of human life on earth.

We are not unlike a young child, who still believes in the tooth faerie. It works because the tooth faerie explains the loss of baby teeth, and if you are lucky, you get rewarded for it. It not unlike believing that you can eat junk food, and get nutrition out of it. We have a few national fantasies that we cling to as if our very life depended on them. And in a way, it may, since those fantasies are deeply woven in national identity. This may work most of the time, but it turns out to be deadly. Especially when the nation comes under great stress. Or when the nation is driven to this state of fear by a president intent on ruling through fear. This is a powerful emotion, that tends to divide people, and create conditions that lead to the reduction of civil rights.

It is not like any of this is unprecedented. If you are old enough, you likely remember not just where you were on 9–11. You will feel the tightening fear in the pit of your stomach with the mere mention of the day. The knowledge that we were at war, the knowledge that the world changed was primal. It was the kind of environment that allowed for the passage of things like the US Patriot Act, which curtailed civil rights.

This is precisely what President Donald Trump is unleashing. This is a deep, existential sense of doom. The is a difference, no towers have fallen. So he has gone another route, priming the public for the old fears that exist in the American imagination. These are the deep angst created by images of shoeless desperate petiole slowly walking north. They have been portrayed as the other, and a dangerous one at that. Let’s make this clear. There is no invasion. Hordes of strong brown bodies, intent on rape and pillage are not coming up to rush our borders, underwhelm our people and destroy our civilization. They are not coming to kill “our people.” And this matters, this language is white supremacy code.

However, this language of “our people” is resonating with those who are indeed a threat to democracy itself. The language of nationalism, like mid last century, resonates with people on the fringes who are quickly moving Mai stream. Our women and children, and indeed our men, have to defend the fatherland from the hordes. This is about blood and soil and keeping the barbarians at bay. This is why the army is at the border putting up concertina wire. It is to protect “our people” from a non-invasion, but one we are supposed to vie freaking out about.

Then we come back to the tooth faerie. We like to deny facts, and this is because facts can be really scary. What we are seeing, not just in the United States, is the rise of the same right-wing nationalism that led to the death of fourteen million people in concentration camps during World War II. Six million was one-third of the European Jewish population. By percentage of a population, Jews lost the most people during the Holocaust. The rest were political prisoners, poles, the Roma People. And more.

We hear this protest from the literati and the intellectuals. They tell us like a metronome why it can’t happen. Many of the fourteen million who perished were the literati and intellectuals of their age. Some were reporters for the papers of their age, that were attacked and their offices firebombed. Alas, reporters have been attacked, and bombs were shipped.

We are at one of those moments when very dark forces are rising. We have a right-wing Populist who was elected by a minority of Americans telling Americans that he, and only he, can solve the crisis that beset us. And there are some issues that could rise to the level of crisis. Climate change and the opioid epidemic come to mind. The former is ignored, in the name of anti-science and the latter can squarely be laid at the feet of doctors prescribing powerful painkillers for conditions where lesser painkillers would be sufficient. The abuse by medical professionals and over prescription created a situation where scores of Americans are dying from opioid overdoses that should never have happened. Ironically, the worst of the crisis is happening in places that voted heavily for Donald Trump. These tend to be poor, rural, red states.

Then we have an existential crisis for the species. Climate change not only threatens the nation but the survival of humanity. Yet, leaders deny this is even real, or happening. What we have though are made up crisis. Demographics point to the end of white dominance by 2045, which is creating a lot of stress among those same whites. There is this thing about status loss and the loss of economic dominance.

The sense that the country is changing is deep. This is creating a deep sense of dread among those who believe they are on top of society. Some are fearful that other groups will do them what they did to others. There are a few ways to maintain control and this includes a system of Apartheid. Remember, we have had this in the past. The Jim Crow, and Juan Crow laws in the South and the West respectively were meant to do this. To say that we are in the midst of a cultural and environmental crisis is, to put it mildly.

This is a thing about deep changes. They can create a need for a savior, and Trump spoke the right words, and the people who are afraid believed him. He was going to deliver them from this. He was the knight in white armor, that in some cases has been prophesied He was the white man who could preserve the social order. He is not unlike the mythical figures presented by Coughlin, or Limbaugh or Alex Jones. He is the one we have waited for. And the ground is still fertile for this.

Americans like heroes. We love to be saved from mythical disasters. The real-life threats could destroy civilization and lead to the extinction of the species. These are not the ones we like to speak off, but instead, invent enemies and monsters that do not exist. These are the enemies that are used by authoritarian leaders to consolidate power, not the very real danger ahead, We live in an era of myths and enemy creation. However, this is not the first time. Alas, why I spoke earlier of Father Coughlin and the supervisor listening to Limbaugh.

So who was this man? Many Americans do not know who Coughlin was. He was a Catholic priest, who was on the radio on Sundays. He was a demagogue, who created a media empire that would be the model for those who came later. Most of those who followed were working poor. Ergo, they were targets of his radical right economic ideology. He was against socialism and communism. This was a common theme in the 1930s among many people. Both and people knew the difference, were feared. But he was also a critic of the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt because according to Coughlin his reforms were socialism. He heavily intimated that Roosevelt was also Jewish. In the end, Coughlin was also friendly to the Third Reich.

There was a coterie of movements in the 1930s that were friendly to the Third Reich. The glue that unified all of these movements was deep antisemitism, which used the classic code of hate that survives to this day. Some of the beliefs of this antisemitism were the concept that Jews control the media, especially liberal Hollywood, the banks and the government. Jews were all powerful and intended to replace the God-fearing (white Aryans) with lesser races. Some were more open about this than others, but what they wanted to do ranged from limiting the ability of Jews to own property, all the way to advocating ghettoes, expulsion, and genocide.

Coughlin led one of these movements, and these days he would fit in our modern conception of the Religious Right. The language he used, and his deep antisemitism, came from a place familiar to the Catholic slurs against the Jews as well. He spoke to people who were poor and desperate. He knew his audience well, and he used the new technology of radio. In some ways, Coughlin invented what in the present we would call Hate Radio. Rush Limbaugh was an early modern-day adopter of his methods. Coughlin mastered the ways of the radio as a means of popular mobilization. Even at its height, Limbaugh never reached the audience size that Father Coughlin had, by percentage of a population. Both could claim 20 million, however, the population size of Coughlin’s America was that much smaller.

This matters in the present since we have new ways of reaching the people. These days it is Twitter, and it isFacebook. In other words, it is Social Media. Radio is no longer a medium that the young listen to. In some ways, neither is television. However, younger voters are very susceptible to the message. It is not that they are young, it is the underlying economic crisis that we are living through. The economy may be growing, but many have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet.

We are not in a depression, like the 1930s. This is true. However, younger Americans are living at a time of deepening economic division, where wages have been flat for the last ten years. They live in an age where they have invested a lot in their education, only to be stuck in entry-level, low paying wages. They live at a time when the economy is not working for them. They are part of a growing g precariat that moves from job to job and does not know when they will have a stable job.

Working class whites who have seen their jobs disappear are also victims of this message. Never mind it is easier to blame the foreign workers than the robots for their loss of jobs. Many are losing good union jobs, and at times replacing those with positions that pay one-third of their previous income.

The rise of hate radio during the 1990s has a lot to do with this as well. The message from Limbaugh and those that followed him were similar to that of Coughlin. Like the prior age, fascism is now flourishing.

In the 1990s we called much of this the politics of personal destruction. Like Franklin Roosevelt decades before, the Clintons were the targets of hate. They were portrayed as socialists, who wanted to expand the government and give people stuff, free if possible. Never mind that Clinton rejected the New Deal when he declared that “the era of big government is over.” This did not matter. Nor did it matter that the party he led moved to the center right, and then kept going, with a rightwards realignment.

So we find ourselves at a moment when hate radio has produced a president that uses fear and hate. One that is ready to lead the nation into the depths of white nationalism. One who has engaged in the use of a more toxic version of the Southern Strategy first used by Richard Nixon. Which leads us back to the tooth faerie. Even though it is obvious that we are facing a fascist populist moment, we are still pretending it is not happening. We keep telling ourselves. “It cannot happen here.” We are exceptional, and because of that, we live outside history.

We have been in this dark place before. We have faced the rise of fascism in the United States. It was not just Coughlin. There were others, including the German Bund, that held a Nazi-style rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939. While they were a small group, by percentage of the population, they were a real and present danger to American Democracy.

The poison of white supremacy remains. The means to spread it are different. It is time that we stop believing we are exceptional. We are human animals, who are reacting to the same dark forces other nations are surrendering to. It is coming from the same dark place of fear and insecurity.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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