Before there was Trump, there was Father Coughlin. Before there were the likes of Steve Schwarzman, Jared Kushner, Mitch McConnell, and their lot, there was Vidkun Quisling. And before there was Florida—a warm-weather bolt-hole for miscreants on the lam—there was Paraguay.
I had heard of Father Coughlin when I first came to America, in the late 1970s, but I didn’t know a great deal about him until I read Wallace Stegner’s profile of him in The Aspirin Age. The book was a collection of essays published in 1949 that sought to tell the story of America between the two World Wars. The Aspirin Age is sadly out of print. But a slightly abridged version of Stegner’s superb portrait of Coughlin is included in this week’s issue, a little further down.
Coughlin was called “the Radio Priest.” But he was not so much cleric as he was sclerotic. Like many a populist who succeeded him, he pined for what he perceived as a purified America—a white, Christian one. Like our departing president, he was an isolationist and peppered his talks with tales of florid conspiracies. And like our departing president, he found his flock and grew it exponentially by playing on fears and hatreds. In delivery and substance, Coughlin’s hysterics presaged not only those of Trump but the bilious rants of today’s right-wing radio and television hosts.
During the 1930s, Coughlin’s listeners numbered an estimated 30 million—this at a time when the U.S. population was a little more than a third of what it is today. Taking current population figures into consideration, that’s greater than the vote count for Trump in the recent election.
A staff of more than a hundred handled the fan mail that poured into his benign-sounding National Shrine of the Little Flower church, in Royal Oak, Michigan, and his equally benign-sounding political organization, the National Union for Social Justice. At Coughlin’s zenith, nearly 80,000 letters (many including cash or checks) had to be sorted each week.
Coughlin’s hysterics presaged not only those of our departing president but the bilious rants of today’s right-wing radio and television hosts.
Like our departing president, Coughlin profited financially from his position. And also like our departing president, he admired strongmen. Trump swoons over fellow autocrats such as Putin, Duterte, and Erdogan. Coughlin’s pinups were even worse: Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito.
Like Trump, Coughlin called for “less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity.” His weekly pamphlet, Social Justice, was rife with bitter anti-Semitic texts. In the late 30s, he published a version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—the fraudulent diatribe that claimed to expose a Jewish plot for world dominance.
Following Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ 1938 pogrom against Jews and their businesses and places of worship, Coughlin announced that “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted.” Again, these are words from a playbook that our departing president parroted in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd earlier this year.
As has been the case with so many demi-gods in the American past, the end for Coughlin began, like bankruptcy, slowly, then all at once. With the German invasion of Poland, in 1939, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two years later, his brand of isolationism and conspiracy was at odds with the mood of the nation. The Roosevelt administration banished Coughlin’s divisive programs from the airwaves. He continued to publish his sorry leaflet, Social Justice, but the U.S. Postal Service refused to distribute it.
As his flock diminished, he was permitted to serve out his time as a pastor at the Shrine of the Little Flower church until he retired, in 1966. Stegner’s commentary on the end of Coughlin’s malignant celebrity was too optimistic by half. “It is not likely that Father Coughlin or any of his American imitators can ever again be more than public nuisances, vermin in the national woodwork,” he wrote. “But let conditions again become as bad as they did in the deep thirties, and the vermin will reappear.”
And as it was with Coughlin, Trump too will fade, if a bit more violently, and if not completely. His post-election waking hours have been a flurry of voting conspiracies, binge-watching right-wing news channels, ALL-CAPS TWEETING, and hammering out the details for potential pardons for his criminal White House cohort as well as his adult children and his legal Cerberus, Rudy Giuliani. Reports of pardons for pay are circling, and they are credible simply because of the transactional nature of our departing president. Also, there is golf. I ask you, when you see a photo of him wearing that ridiculous red hat out on the golf course, has ever a loser looked more loser-ish?
In the late 30s, he published a version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
When they finally pry those tiny fingers from the Resolute desk, Trump will presumably retreat to Florida, a state that has become to Wall Street felons, opioid profiteers, and Trump-administration grifters what Paraguay was to surviving Nazis after the war—a haven. Florida’s the one sunny redoubt in America where the non grata like the Trumps and their allies can feel somewhat grata.
While the Trump name will be toxic in most corners of the civilized world, it is in Florida where he can mingle among the family members, cowering Senate lickspittles, swindlers, and conspiracists who make up his coterie. They are the ones who egged him on and enabled his unique form of authoritarianism to flourish within the confines of a democracy. Perhaps he will receive a visit from his federally funded personal lawyer William Barr—the Michael Scott to Trump’s Todd Packer.
The departing president will find some comfort in his very own social circle of what can only be called quislings—the World War II–era pejorative given to those who collaborate with an occupying force, and named after Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian political figure who sought appeasement with the Nazis.
Yes, in Florida, Trump will be at home among his own—many of whom, like him, will be scrounging for crumbs from what they perceive as a post-presidential windfall. It will be in Florida where Trump will scramble to fend off myriad state and city investigations and where he will do anything in his power to avoid paying the hundreds of millions in loans that are coming due.
And it is here that his flag with the Trump golf-club insignia can fly with pride, looking as it does like a cross between the Russian national emblem and the logo of a feminine hygiene product. In the memorable words of George S. Kaufman, “Forgotten but not gone.”