Reading or listening to Coughlin’s speeches, it is clear that entire chunks of text could be transposed to the present day almost without alteration; his extended laments about “the uncrowned princes of Wall Street,” for instance, and the influence of “banksters,” whose interests the government protects while the great masses look for work; or his calls to abolish the Federal Reserve and his claims that radicals had infiltrated the government. Even his strident attacks on Roosevelt as a “liar,” a “radical,” a “Communist,” and an “upstart dictator” are strikingly similar to the rhetorical assaults on Barack Obama.

In the end, though, the greatest lesson of Coughlin’s career may actually be its limitations. His fiery broadcasts could generate huge ratings, fill cavernous stadiums, and flood Washington with protestors and irate telegrams. At times, he was able to stop major pieces of New Deal legislation in their tracks. But when it came to swaying elections, his influence was practically nil. Perhaps that fact is the Fighting Priest’s most enduring legacy.

 

Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.