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Father Coughlin, Then and Now

Jon Meacham has an essay apparently adapted from his forthcoming book. The headline is a bit too provocative, I guess, but I have to say I don’t see the cause for outrage that Jonathan Tobin does. Jonathan sees “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and “hyperbolic conclusions.” I see Meacham straining to name-check Coughlin in a column that really doesn’t lend itself to discussing Coughlin much at all. Sure there’s some guilt by association involved, but there are also some perfectly fine criticisms about the smallness and pettiness of Trump’s rhetoric that Jonathan essentially concedes, albeit in subdued tones.

Meanwhile, as a long-time obsessive about Coughlin and the way he’s been treated by historians and journalists, my real objection to Meacham’s essay is that it makes no mention of the fact that Coughlin was a creature of the populist left (though kudos to Meacham for avoiding calling Coughlin a rightwinger).

Coughlin was a conspiracy theorist, who loved to denounce the globalists of the age – “international bankers” – and regularly ripped into President Hoover. During the campaign he stumped for FDR insisting it was “Roosevelt or Ruin.” He was also a passionate defender of the New Deal (calling it “Christ’s Deal”). FDR welcomed Coughlin’s support, even if he didn’t like him personally and didn’t want to be too closely associated with him. Still Roosevelt invited Coughlin to his inauguration and was happy to have the “Radio Priest” lionize him, at times in terms so obsequious some of today’s Trump-boosters might blush with embarrassment.

For much of FDR’s first term Coughlin was a celebrity darling of both the White House and congressional Democrats. Coughlin’s anti-Semitism – which was always there – only bothered Roosevelt and his defenders when Coughlin started attacking the New Deal and Roosevelt from the Left. Coughlin didn’t think the New Deal was nearly radical enough and he had convinced himself that he could push Roosevelt toward an even more statist program. When he failed, he turned bitterly on Roosevelt and tried to start his own movement.

Anyway, I could go on. But it seems to me there’s a much more interesting story to tell comparing Coughlin to Steve Bannon, Alex Jones or some other figures on the right who thought they could steer the Trump train in a direction of their own choosing. The comparison isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more apt than comparing Trump, however obliquely, Coughlin.


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