In 1929 America and the rest of the world experienced a crash. The 1920s, called the Roaring Twenties, when wealthy people leaped enthusiastically in to popular endeavors such as Speak Easys and led the country into financial disaster and common people were desperately unhappy about it.
Father Coughlin stepped out of the fiery preacher role on radio and became the “conduit for a real and very understandable anger.” He rode a populist wave of anger. He became the voice of outrage and had spectacular success on the perfect medium for anger—the radio. Anger has been the bed rock of talk radio ever since, particularly right-wing talk radio.
In the language of today, Father Coughlin was a populist—he was anti-communist but also anti-capitalist. He supported some unions, but not the more radical unions. He started out left, though not extreme left. As Justin Ling the host and writer of the CBC podcast Flame Throwers said, “Coughlin’s audience was estimated at 40 million listeners. At that time that was a third of America. Limbaugh at his height would have only about 1/20th of America.” This is much more than Fox News obtains today. These were huge numbers! And all this from a Canadian priest!
Meanwhile money poured into the church he was restoring and he arranged for it to build a huge iron cross, one the KKK could not burn.Coughlin turned to a politician he could support. It was someone who distrusted the political class like he did. So, he turned instead to someone who distrusted the bankers and big business. This was a champion of everyman. Not a far right politician. This political leader was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the author of the new deal.
Coughlin was clear, “It is either Roosevelt or ruin,” he said. FDR was a shrewd politician and “he saw in the radio priest, a new way of meeting the masses.” Coughlin saw in FDR a vehicle for his new social justice calling. Justin Ling pointed out “As President, FDR recognized the visceral yet intimate power of radio. Through his fireside chats he entered into America’s living rooms as a trusted guest.” Coughlin inspired the President who followed suit. As Ling said, “Coughlin is no longer that small town Catholic fighting anti-Catholic bias.” Later Coughlin abandoned FDR when he started making deals with the bankers rather than throwing them out as he done earlier. Later, when FDR made a deal with Stalin (and Churchill) Coughlin was furious. “Coughlin was vehemently anti-Communist.” He changed his slogan to “Roosevelt and ruin.”
Coughlin started his own political party and then turned to the dark side–the far right. He blamed Jews for their own persecution. He also adopted various conspiracy theories such as the one that Jewish bankers were part of an international cabal. He also cited the conspiracy theory of the elders of Zion which falsely claimed that Jews were part of a international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. He claimed that Jews and Communists together were determined to take over America. Coughlin gave up on left wing causes and turned instead to supporting Hitler and the Nazis. He went about as far right as he could go.
He came to be called “the father of Hate radio.” Though someone else grabbed that crown from him about 100 years later. We will get to him. Coughlin began to be abandoned by his erst while supporters. Many called out his mistaken litany of facts that were not facts at all. Federal regulators warned him that they would not allow the airwaves to abused in that manner. As Ling said, “In today’s world he was cancelled and de-platformed.” The radio star was done, but his influence lived on to be used by other pundits from other political persuasions.
As Ling said, “Coughlin was radio’s first real celebrity. He weaponized bombast but met his listeners where they were at. He sat in their living rooms and echoed their concerns. He helped to propel presidents to power. He tried to have a say in running the country from behind a microphone.” He did all this by unleashing the power of hate. He was soon followed by many others.
The genie of political radio was out of the bottle and would never get back in. as Ling said, “Coughlin fell into conspiracy theories and hate as a way to energize and galvanize his support, and he would not be the last.” Once politicians, pundits, and frauds saw the power of hate, others followed as surely as night follows day. He proved how powerful the toxic combination of racism, hatred, and conspiracy theories could be.