He couldn’t. In fact, Lemke garnered less than a million votes, and not a single one of the Union Party’s congressional candidates won election. True to his word, Coughlin did briefly “retire” from the radio—only to allow his faithful flock to woo him back on the air early the next year.
For a while, he seemed disconsolate, saying that Roosevelt’s landslide win made him a de facto dictator and that conventional political resistance was useless. But although his influence was diminished, Coughlin was far from a spent force. When Roosevelt, in the midst of another economic slippage during his second term, attempted to reorganize the government bureaucracy, the priest regained his old form, blasting the legislation as a “dictator bill” and urging his listeners to telegram Congress.
The response was so overwhelming the wire services had to shut down all other traffic to handle the volume. The reform bill flopped. And though others opposed the legislation, FDR acknowledged that “the gentleman from near Detroit” was primarily responsible for its demise. “Demagoguery and stupidity,” the president wrote to an aide after the vote, “are the natural enemies of democracy.”
The final act of Coughlin’s conflict with Roosevelt hinged on America’s looming involvement in World War II. From the beginning, his repeated lambasting of “international bankers,” “money lenders in the temple,” and his harping on the supposed prominence of Jews in communist intrigues had generated charges of anti-Semitism. With his alienation from the New Deal and the threat of war in Europe, Coughlin’s rants took on a darker tone. His weekly newspaper, Social Justice, serialized The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a paranoid fantasia about Jewish intrigues long since debunked by scholars. His speeches began to draw comparisons to Adolf Hitler’s—and in one instance, his newspaper appeared to reprint remarks made in Berlin by Joseph Goebbels without identifying their origin. Coughlin indignantly denied the charges of anti-Semitism, even as critics began to refer to his church as the “Shrine of the Little Führer.”
Coughlin’s reputation was further damaged when he announced a successor to the National Union called the Christian Front. The group quickly developed a reputation for thuggery, brawling on the streets, and roughing up people they suspected of being Jewish. They also picketed those radio stations that were beginning to shun Coughlin’s broadcasts.
In January 1940, eighteen members of the Christian Front were arrested for conspiracy to assassinate members of Congress. Police found weapons and bomb-making materials. Coughlin distanced himself from the group, but his exile to the political fringe was accelerating. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Coughlin’s harping on international conspiracies ran afoul of both wartime sentiment and the Justice Department’s tolerance for criticism of the government.
Threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act, Coughlin and his superiors in the church agreed that he should retire from radio and close his newspaper. He returned to being a parish priest, serving quietly (for the most part) for the next quarter-century. He died in 1979, and was buried at the church in Royal Oak, whose construction had launched his career.
Viewed against the backdrop of Coughlin’s clout during the Roosevelt years, the influence of today’s cadre of conservative critics seem tame. The priest was too hot to handle. Even as FDR privately fumed about Coughlin’s invective and influence, he studiously avoided discussing him in public. Roosevelt never returned fire directly, and was careful not to make Coughlin a martyr or play to his already well-developed sense of persecution. This was not only principle but realpolitik in action: FDR legitimately feared alienating Coughlin’s Catholic following, some of whom already harbored suspicions about the New Deal.
As for the ultimate root of Coughlin’s appeal, perhaps no one summed it up better than the philosopher John Dewey. Writing in the 1920s at the dawn of electronic mass communication, Dewey foresaw that the new technology carried with it the power to divide and “atomize” society, with individual constituencies increasingly replacing the shared sense of community. As Coughlin’s biographer Donald Warren observed, the broadcaster thrived by “projecting qualities of populist sincerity and trustworthiness while providing a forum for violence-provoking political expressions.”