An audacious, overconfident bigot who twisted radio tubes into a grotesque pulpit, Father Charles Coughlin was a 1930s menace in America, but at least he was never President.
The Catholic priest, a Michigan immigrant via Canada, became a wildly famous demagogue when he combined a flair for the nouveau mass media of radio, populist impulses and deep-seated bigotry, which attracted tens of millions of weekly listeners at his zenith as well as a sizable number of vocal detractors.
While the beginning of the decade saw him support Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, Coughlin turned viciously on the President for not sharing his anti-Semitism, among other reasons. At different times, he blamed Jews for both capitalism (“money‐changers in Wall Street”) and communism, which would have kept a relatively small population awfully busy.
His addresses gradually adopted the tone of Hitler and Mussolini: “I take the road of Fascism,” he admitted in 1936. They were also marked by calls for isolationism and whispers of conspiracy theories, and were laced with suggestions of violence directed at “Jewish bankers.” His response to the horror of Kristallnacht was a bizarre case of “whataboutism,” arguing that the persecution of Jewish people was merely a reversal of suffering they’d caused. Unsurprisingly, his words encouraged acts of Nazi vandalism in America, with swastikas painted on the doors of Jewish homes by his supporters, often members of the Christian Front, which enjoyed the encouragement of Coughlin.
Vatican and U.S. government officials alike thought him a dangerous embarrassment, but the “radio priest” had the unwavering support of Bishop Michael Gallagher, the Detroit clergyman who was his direct superior (and a loyal Roosevelt voter). Coughlin was ultimately forced from the air in early 1940 by the church (Gallagher died in 1937) and FDR officials, who also worked to stem the mailing of his vile printed materials after America entered World War II.
Soon before he was to broadcast for the final time, Coughlin made strange comments about a “sinister” plot against him, which were reported in an article from the January 29, 1940 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.