When riffing, a great political performance artist can “whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but … also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks … coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts” that are “inescapable even when… entirely incorrect.” We like to think “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” but maybe, “it” could.
Watching a political leader “raging up and down this land preaching not construction but destruction” unnerves most of us—yet inspires millions. “You can laugh … you can snort,” but appeals to society’s “emotional fringe” work. “Pied pipers of the lunatic fringe” pose a great “menace” that could “lead to chaos and destruction.” Tolerating demagoguery is “playing volley ball with political dynamite.” ”
With these words 80 years ago in 1935, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis (in the first paragraph), and the New Dealer Hugh Johnson (in the second), blasted the Great Depression’s Great Demagogues, particularly the Louisiana politician Huey Long and the Midwestern “radio priest” Father Charles E. Coughlin.
Long was a more conventional demagogue. This sweaty, huggy, back-thumping, baby-kissing, seductive, charismatic, eloquent wheeler dealer made Louisiana his fiefdom and hoped to do the same to the rest of the country, promising the poor he would “Share the Wealth.” Coughlin was a modern phenomenon whose rise—and fall—is particularly relevant—and possibly prophetic—today. A powerful media personality who never held public office and knew nothing of governance turned prejudiced politico dazzled by dreams of the presidency as his celebrity grew, Coughlin used his radio-based popularity to rabble rouse while demonizing America’s most disliked religion in the 1930s, Judaism.
An assassin ended Long’s rise on Sept. 10, 1935. Coughlin’s moment only ended thanks to institutional authority that no longer exists, presidential potency that has been missing lately, and an enduring decency on the part of the American people, who ultimately repudiated Coughlin as a bullying bigot.
In 1926, Rev. Charles Edward Coughlin, a 34-year-old Canadian-born Roman Catholic, became the pastor of a tiny suburban parish in Royal Oak, Michigan. The next year, he started broadcasting the first Catholic services regularly on radio. His authoritative baritone, sharp tongue for phrase-making, and genius for trouble-making stirred millions devastated economically in 1929. In 1930, CBS began broadcasting his show nationally. By 1934, anticipating today’s televangelists, he received the most mail in America—often with contributions to bankroll his growing empire. This pioneering radio shock jock entertained and inflamed as many as 30 million listeners weekly, in a country of 127 million.
One fan would recall that hearing Coughlin address a rally “was a thrill like Hitler. And the magnetism was uncanny. It was so intoxicating, there’s no use saying what he talked about.”
Coughlin thrived in that peculiar political place where, Earth being round, the extremes of left and right overlap. Denouncing plutocrats and championing the poor sounded Communist. But his hyper-nationalist, authoritarian anti-Communism made him protective of white prerogative, hostile to Jews, and increasingly comfortable with fascism.
Coughlin and Long were the leading homegrown, American populists who stirred the demoralized masses in the 1930s. In Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, & the Great Depression, Alan Brinkley explains that these demagogues’ “ideological fuzziness” united anxious Americans in their “fear of concentrated power” and “the traditional American resistance to being governed—whether by private interests or by public institutions.” The 1880s’ Populism was more agrarian and is most remembered for pioneering progressive ideas. By contrast, in The Populist Persuasion, Michael Kazin notes that Coughlin’s “conservative populism … pledged to defend pious, middle-class communities against the amoral governing elite.”
Initially, Coughlin loved Franklin Roosevelt, christening the New Deal, “Christ’s Deal.” But inevitably, Coughlin cooled, branding FDR “the dumbest man ever to occupy the White House.”
After the 1934 elections, Coughlin founded the National Union of Social Justice to convert his celebrity into political power. Seeking an enemy beyond the popular president, he bashed Jews as both Marxists and “international bankers” exploiting the poor. Coughlin warned that “One hundred years from today Washington will be Washingtonski.” As Sinclair Lewis noted in his 1935 satire warning against incipient fascism, It Can’t Happen Here, “Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.”
In 1936, Coughlin overstepped. Trying to boost what was now the Union Party, he said Franklin Roosevelt running against Gov. Alf M. Landon posed a choice “between carbolic acid and rat poison.” After the priest called “Franklin double-crossing Roosevelt” a “great betrayer and liar,” the Vatican finally demanded Coughlin apologize.
Jazzed by the controversy, just weeks later Coughlin called FDR “anti-God” and said only “bullets” could prevent an “upstart dictator in the United States” if the “ballot is useless.” The Vatican declared it “not proper for a priest to attack constituted authority in any country.”
Despite apologizing again, Coughlin was spiraling downward. By 1935, Roosevelt’s Second New Deal had moved left, passing the 1935 Social Security Act and other welfare state measures. The president’s son Elliott Roosevelt believed FDR’s reforms were “designed to cut the ground from under the demagogues.” However, young Roosevelt overstated his father’s fears and understated the president’s behind-the-scenes efforts to shut them down. The president tried being philosophical, recognizing that “these are not normal times; people are jumpy and very ready to run after strange gods.” On Election Day, Coughlin’s candidates failed. He never recovered.
As his popularity and respectability drained away, this funny, brash, mesmerizing media demagogue escalated and escalated until he self-destructed. When a radio station boycotted his anti-Semitic broadcast, Coughlin became a free-speech martyr—to Hitlerites. The New York Times reported that Coughlin had become “the hero of Nazi Germany”—a ticket to ignominy in Roosevelt’s America.
By 1940, Father Coughlin was politically radioactive. His hatred of Roosevelt propelled him toward the Republican candidate. Wendell Willkie repudiated Coughlin with an all-American directness that every decent politician and citizen should echo today. Willkie declared: “I am not interested in the support of anybody who stands for any form of prejudice as to anyone’s race or religion…. I have no place in my philosophy for such beliefs. There is no hedge clause about that….I don’t have to be President of the United States, but I have to keep my beliefs clear… in order to live with myself.”
The institutional pressure against Coughlin grew, as did violations of his freedom of speech. The three major radio networks, CBS, NBC, and Mutual, refused to sell him air time. The National Association of Broadcasters rewrote its code of conduct to restrict him, the Attorney General investigated him, and the Postmaster General harassed him. The Catholic hierarchy constrained him. Meanwhile, most Americans had long since soured on him.
After Pearl Harbor, with his isolationism mocked and his anti-Semitism repudiated, Father Coughlin became even more toxic. Theodore Seuss Geisel—a young Dr. Seuss—drew a cartoon with Adolf Hitler reading Coughlin’s magazine Social Justice and commenting: “Not bad Coughlin … but when are you going to start printing it in German?” Coughlin, who continued claiming he just wanted to defend the “little guy,” lived in relative obscurity until 1979.
The 1930s Populist moment, which peaked in 1935, had petered out. The title of Sinclair Lewis’s worried novel that year proved true, It Can’t Happen Here. We should remember: Democracy is a roller coaster, not a kiddie ride. Institutional brakes, individual leaders, and Americans’ innate decency, while not able to avoid bumps, nevertheless have long protected us from becoming derailed.
Gil Troy is a historian and the author of a new book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.