At the Throat of American Democracy, Part 1

Published: January 18, 2022

By Jim Lichtman
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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana, American writer, and philosopher

On the one-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, President Joe Biden made clear that “The former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election. . . . [and] held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy.”

We’ve been here before.

As a political presence on radio in the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin was second only to Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the blessing of the local bishop in Michigan, Coughlin came to the preacher’s pulpit with a new and powerful tool: radio. And it didn’t take him long to go from the Bible to the tribal politics of the day. With a listening audience estimated between 30-40 million per week, Coughlin was bigger than Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly combined; this, when the resident population in the United States was a modest 123 million.

After the 1929 stock market crash, journalist Walter Lippmann observed, “A demoralized people is one in which the individual has become isolated. He trusts nobody and nothing, not even himself. He believes nothing, except the worst of everybody and everything. He sees only confusion in himself and conspiracies in other men.”

In his book, Radio Priest, Donald Warren writes that Lippmann believed that “Modern mass communication created ‘pseudo environments,’ that thwarted the ability of the average citizen to make political judgments based on facts.”

While Americans could be persuaded by perhaps a few dozen influencers in the 30s, millions now hold a tool in their hands that can sway millions more.

In a radio address, Franklin Roosevelt raised a caution. “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.”

Lippmann and Roosevelt were acutely aware of the power and danger of the demagogue wearing a cleric’s collar. Coughlin’s soaring oratory became a monster of influence in a country beset by a devastating depression.

The bigoted priest from Michigan was the perfect fit for a country grown distrustful of government’s justifications for an overwhelming economic disaster. He attacked bankers. He attacked Herbert Hoover. He attacked anyone who—real or perceived—threatened Americans always emphasizing old-fashioned principles of Christian charity.

Unlike today’s media populists who only intimate their guidance from on high, Coughlin flat-out declared a direct connection to the Almighty. In support of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential bid, Coughlin declared, “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal [and] God is directing President Roosevelt.”

Somewhere along the line, however, Roosevelt’s New Deal fell out of favor with the Almighty, and He appointed Coughlin his avenging angel.

“He who promised to drive the money changers from the temple,” Coughlin declared in July 1936, “has built up the greatest debt in history, $35,000,000,000…I ask you to purge the man who claims to be a Democrat from the Democratic Party, and I mean Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.”

In a shocking declaration foreshadowing January 6, 2021, Coughlin stated, “When the ballot is useless, I shall have the courage to stand up and advocate the use of bullets.”

In March 1935, the cracks in Coughlin’s support began to appear. One disenchanted supporter wrote to the priest. “I fail to see… more than sheer destructive criticism in your utterances… The mask is becoming dangerously apparent. The tone, as well as the substance of your speeches is… more fascistic than truly democratic.”

While similar responses followed, Coughlin’s ultimate decline came when leaders forcefully spoke out against his intolerant rhetoric and Americans awakened to reality. In a Congressional speech, New York Representative John O’Connor asserted, “Just because Father Coughlin is an egomaniac, he thinks he can run the government.”

Sadly, such is not the case from Republican leadership today. Rather than pull the mask off the lying, bigoted bully whose influence appears to grow daily, most Republicans are willing to spread the lies from their almighty autocrat who may yet succeed in tearing apart American democracy.

Coughlin’s radio rants on behalf of the working class and the dispossessed morphed into a demagogic nightmare of distortion, lies, and intolerance. By 1936, his anti-Semitic beliefs caught up with him. The radio priest claimed that the Depression was brought about by an “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers.” And in 1938, two weeks after Germany’s Kristallnacht, Coughlin declared, “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted.”

 Coughlin’s tipping point had come. One Washington District rabbi called on Pope Pius XI for action. “The decent citizens of America, not only of the Jewish faith, but among the most devout Catholics of this country are viewing with growing indignation, the ten years of Father Coughlin’s demagoguery and his increasing irresponsibility of the past years, and they turn to the supreme pontiff of the great church of Rome with a petition in their hearts that the prestige of the church of the gentle St. Francis be not dragged into the mire….”

Coughlin’s power and influence coughed and wheezed until the Church mercifully put an end to his inflammatory broadcasts in 1940.

However, while the “Father of Hate Radio,” as he became known, had left the political stage, there was no shortage of heirs to pick up his mantle. Today, they live and breathe in scores of right-wing media.

Will we ever heed the lessons of our past?

Friday: Twenty years later, Americans faced another threat . . . from inside government.


  1. Thanks for the historical reminders: “‘Father of Hate Radio,’… had left the political stage… Today, they live and breathe in scores of right-wing media…” We must stay alert.

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