IMAGINE a right-wing agitator with more viewers than Sean Hannity, more listeners than Rush Limbaugh, more followers on Twitter than Donald Trump, and the name Father Charles Coughlin comes to mind.
Today, home-grown fascism has seemingly sprouted out of nowhere as we witnessed during the attack on the Capitol, but the fact is, it is not new. Coughlin had massive support for his anti-Semitic slurs back in the 1930s and was among the great American demagogues.
In his time Coughlin had the equivalent support for his pro-Nazi speeches as Trump has for his espousal of the Proud Boys and QAnon.
At his height in the late thirties and early forties, it is estimated more than one-third of all American adults heard his weekly radio attacks on Jewish conspiracies and his support for Nazi Germany which was secretly funding him, as was discovered after the war.
There was little in his background to suggest Coughlin would turn out as one of America’s greatest rabble-rousers.
He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1891 to Irish parents. His mother Amelia Mahoney was a devout Catholic who wished her son to join the priesthood. Coughlin obliged.
Coughlin was working at a parish in Detroit when his weekly radio address became a sensation. Soon after signing a lucrative contract with CBS, one-third of all Americans, about 30 million, tuned in, and he received 80,000 letters a week. He was the first-ever televangelist.
He used his bully pulpit as Trump did, to cajole and foment anger in listeners and blame their troubles on other people. In Trump's case it was the Democrats; in Coughlin’s, the Jews.
Like Trump, Coughlin actually began public life as a Democrat. In his case, he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal and castigated the Ku Klux Klan who were notoriously anti-Catholic.
But Coughlin soon tired of Roosevelt and his darker side became apparent. Suddenly he was attacking bankers and using every anti-Jewish sentiment in the book.
With fascist dictators showing up all over Europe with Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco in the ascendant, Coughlin became an avid supporter.
The Catholic Church hierarchy did little to stop his torrent of anti-Jewish tropes, leaving it to the local bishop, Michael Gallagher, who seemed very much to side with Coughlin’s views.
After Kristallnacht in November 1938 when Jewish properties were seized and smashed up, Coughlin wrote that "Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted."
Roosevelt and Coughlin even met in an attempt to iron out their differences, but Coughlin was not for turning back. Roosevelt sent Joseph Kennedy Senior, father of John F. Kennedy, and Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy to try and get him to lower his rhetoric but to no avail.
Coughlin was impervious to criticism and became a hero to millions of working-class whites with his tales of exclusion and the joys of Nazism.
The radio shows were described as "a variation of the fascist agenda applied to American culture." Their popularity was such that in 1933, The Literary Digest wrote, "Perhaps no man has stirred the country and cut as deep between the old order and the new as Father Charles E. Coughlin.”
Coughlin even had his own Proud Boys, a group called the Christian Front whose members regularly attacked synagogues and Jews.
In 1939 after declaring war, Roosevelt had enough of the turbulent priest. He barred him from the airwaves and Coughlin’s voice, like Trump without Twitter, faded as time went by. He went back to his role as pastor and cleric and lived quietly until his death in 1979.
At one point, there is no question, Coughlin had the mob following him and baying for blood. Unlike Trump, however, he never advocated for insurrection.