When Fascism Was American
The open racism and xenophobia that have characterized Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and perhaps provided much of its appeal, has been alarming. For a growing number of people, Trump’s rhetoric is a sign of something deeper and more frightening: the growth of a fascist movement in the United States.
Ohio governor John Kasich — one of Trump’s many rivals for the Republican nomination — produced an anti-Trump video that paraphrases Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning about the Nazis.
For many other commentators, as well, the violence Trump supporters have directed at critics during campaign rallies, along with the candidate’s call for banning Muslims from the United States, are further confirmation that Trump is a Nazi. In the last Democratic presidential debate, former Maryland governor and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley denounced Trump as a “fascist demagogue.”
Yet, on too many of these occasions, the fascist label has been reduced to a vague term of abuse rather than a bridge to a real political analysis of the underlying political forces that could produce a fascist movement in the United States.
The US hasn’t seen the stirrings of fascist mobilization since the late 1930s when mounting fascist victories in Europe galvanized its adherents in America, chief among them Father Charles Coughlin and his Christian Front. This history has something to offer us today.
By late 1938, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy had shifted the balance of forces among the world’s major powers, while fascist general Francisco Franco wrestled most of Spain from republican forces. The growing power of fascism was increasingly impacting civilian populations, particularly in Germany. According to historian Warren Grover:
That year  Germany demonstrated to the world that it would move with impunity in Europe and violate Jews’ most basic rights: Jewish community organizations lost their official status and recognition (March); the registration of all Jewish property became compulsory (April); over 1,500 German Jews were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps (June); Jewish physicians could no longer treat Christians (June); Nazis ordered the destruction of the Great Synagogue in Munich (July); All Jewish men were required to add “Israel” to their name and all Jewish women “Sarah” (August); Jews were barred from practicing law (September); German-Jewish passports were marked with the letter “J” for Jude (October); and finally Kristallnacht (November).
In the United States, the public and the press were virtually unanimous in condemning Kristallnacht, with one poll reporting that nearly 94 percent of Americans disapproved of Germany’s treatment of Jews.
Yet despite Nazism’s unpopularity, one voice took to the airwaves to defend these actions — Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Catholic priest based in Royal Oak, Michigan. Coughlin was a popular radio personality with an audience of millions, largely concentrated in the northeastern United States, and in New York City in particular.
In a highly anticipated broadcast that took place eleven days after Kristallnacht, Coughlin began by posing three questions: “Why is there persecution in Germany today?”; “How can we destroy it?”; and why is “Nazism so hostile to Jewry?”
Coughlin presented a simple answer: Nazism was a “defense mechanism against Communism,” and that the “rising generation of Germans regard Communism as a product not of Russia, but of a group of Jews who dominated the destinies of Russia.”
In the broadcast Coughlin minimized the Nazi “fine” of $400 million on Germany’s Jewish community with the claim that “between these same years not $400 million but $40 billion . . . of Christian property was appropriated by the Lenins and Trotskys . . . by the atheistic Jews and Gentiles” and accused the New York investment bank Kuhn Loeb & Company with helping to finance the Russian revolution and other Communist plots.
Coughlin’s unapologetic Nazi propaganda inspired swift backlash. WMCA, the New York radio station that provided his largest audience, demanded to see his scripts in advance of any future broadcasts, and cancelled his program after he refused. Coughlin later admitted that he used “Nazi sources” in his broadcast.
Following the broadcast the New York Times’ Berlin correspondent reported that Coughlin had become “the new hero of Nazi Germany.” But Coughlin wasn’t only a hero in Berlin; thousands of American supporters responded enthusiastically to his calls for militant action against “atheistic communism.”
Coughlin began broadcasting from his Michigan church, “The Shrine of the Little Flower,” in 1926, when radio represented a novel, thrilling experience for millions of people. With his rich baritone voice, and slight Irish brogue which he employed for great theatrical effect, Coughlin was made for the new medium.
The 1929 Wall Street crash and the ensuing depression impoverished large parts of Coughlin’s working- and lower-middle-class audience. In the wake of the crisis his broadcasts changed from religious sermonizing to political commentary that began with violent attacks on communism. According to historian Alan Brinkley,
[Coughlin] continued to dwell upon his abhorrence of communism, socialism, and “kindred fallacious social and economic theories,” but [his broadcasts] also emphasized other concerns: Coughlin’s fear that the selfish practices of “predatory capitalism” would drive Americans to embrace these pernicious doctrines.
As Coughlin attacked the “banksters” he blamed for the Great Depression, his audience grew massive. By 1933, the network of radio stations that carried his broadcasts reached a potential listenership of forty million.
In November 1934, Coughlin announced that he would organize his followers into a new political organization, the National Union for Social Justice. He denied that it was a third party even though it bore the hallmarks of every traditional American political party, and was organized by congressional districts. Coughlin waited for the right issue to flex the muscles of his new formation and got it in January 1935 when Roosevelt proposed that the United States affiliate to the World Court.
No president since Woodrow Wilson — for fear of provoking an isolationist backlash — had proposed the US make itself accountable to an international institution. A largely symbolic act, it initially appeared that Roosevelt would win the Senate majority needed to ratify the treaty for affiliation.
Coughlin mobilized his forces along with other World Court opponents, including the mighty newspaper chain of arch-reactionary William Randolph Hearst. They overwhelmed Washington with hundreds of telegrams over one crucial weekend and defeated the treaty. A jubilant Coughlin declared that he intended to slay greater dragons. “Our next goal is to clean out the international bankers.”
The phrase “international bankers” was a euphamism for Jews and was widely used in those years by numerous public figures including auto magnate (and fellow Michigander) Henry Ford, who bankrolled the distribution of antisemitic propaganda through his newspaper the Dearborn Independent.
Coughlin made the leap from antisemitism to open fascism after his political ambitions were crushed in the 1936 election. Coughlin had merged his National Union of Social Justice with the remnants of the late Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth clubs, led by the antisemitic preacher Gerald L.K. Smith, and old-age pension activist Francis Townsend, in order to mount a third-party challenge to Roosevelt.
The Union Party nominated North Dakota congressman William Lemke for president. Roosevelt, however, had shifted dramatically to the left during the course of 1935. In the face of failing New Deal policies and a huge upsurge in labor struggle, the president signed into law historic legislation including the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, the popularity of which undercut any electoral challenge.
As Lemke’s campaign faltered, Coughlin grew increasingly agitated and vitriolic. “When an upstart dictator in the United States succeeds in making this a one-party form of government, then the ballot is useless,” he asserted to an audience of twenty-five thousand supporters in Providence, Rhode Island. Coughlin declared: “I shall have the courage to stand up and advocate the use of bullets” and promised “more bullet holes in the White House than you could count with an adding machine.”
Winning less than nine hundred thousand votes across the country, Lemke went down in crushing defeat while Roosevelt secured one of the biggest presidential landslides in US history. With the election over, Coughlin announced that he would retire from the airwaves. Despondent, he confided to a reporter, “Democracy is doomed. This is our last election . . . It is fascism or communism. We are at a crossroads.”
“What road do you take, Father Coughlin?” the reporter asked.
“I take the road of fascism,” the priest replied.
The Christian Front
In the estimation of biographer Donald Warren, “it would not be until 1938 that [Coughlin] truly was able to recover from defeat.” To an audience diminished but still numbering in the millions, he retook the airwaves emboldened by troubles for Roosevelt at home and the victories of fascism abroad. The short-lived economic recovery of the president’s first term had been wiped out by a dramatic downturn.
The “Roosevelt recession” brought mass unemployment and the forward march of the militant CIO was halted as factories and shipyards closed or laid off much of their workforces. Roosevelt’s bungled effort to pack the Supreme Court with his allies provided Dixiecrats and Republicans cover to sabotage and roll back the New Deal. Meanwhile in Europe, fascism advanced.
Starting in 1936, Coughlin augmented his radio presence with the newspaper Social Justice, sold on the streets of major cities especially in the Midwest and Northeast. As Warren notes, “throughout 1937 and into early 1938, Jewish financial control became a regular theme of Social Justice . . . [Coughlin] printed his own version of the very centerpiece of antisemitic literature at the time, the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Coughlin also attempted to make an alliance with Mussolini, offering the Italian dictator space in Social Justice to defend the racial policies of his government. (He got no reply.) In addition to their fascination with Mussolini, Coughlin and Social Justice were fixated on the Spanish Civil War and General Francisco Franco’s martial aura. They portrayed Franco as a hero defending “Christian civilization” from marauding communists.
The paper published lurid and false stories of Christians massacred by Republican forces, and baited American Jews for supporting the antifascist cause. Six months before Kristallnacht, he told his radio audience:
If every reader of Social Justice formed at once a platoon of 25 or more persons dedicated to opposing Communism in all its forms, a Christian Front of 25,000,000 Americans would already be in action.
Coughlin claimed he was inspired to call for a “Christian Front” by the Communist Party’s support for a Popular Front against fascism, but the call also evoked the “front line” of a war and his use of “platoon” left little room for interpretation. “Rest assured,” he threatened his left-wing enemies in a later radio address, “we will fight you in Franco’s way, if necessary . . . rest assured we will fight you and we will win.”
Following Kristallnacht and the public reaction to Coughlin’s commentary on Nazism, WMCA cancelled his broadcasts. In response, according to Donald Flamm, the owner of the Manhattan station, “several thousand people encircled the block where our studios are located, denounced the WMCA as un-American, and shouted its slogan of ‘Don’t buy from Jews,’ ‘Down with Jews,’ etc.” A memorandum of the American Jewish Council recorded “remarks uttered by the picketers . . . more explicit than the legends on the signs”:
Send refugees to Russia where they can be appreciated!
This is a Christian country. Who isn’t Christian throw them out!
Wait until Hitler comes over here.
Down with Jewish war-mongers.
Determined to punish WMCA, the Christian Fronters demonstrated outside the station weekend after weekend. In an autobiography written two decades later, Wechsler recalled,
The Christian Front hysteria reached its peak in midsummer . There was a genuine fear that a fascist movement had finally taken root in New York, and that its counterpoint was developing in other areas under the stimulus of Coughlin’s weekly sermons.
The journalist estimated that the Christian Front held thirty rallies a week throughout all of the city’s boroughs, and attracted crowds as large as two thousand supporters. Jewish storeowners in Brooklyn and the Bronx faced regular Christian Front pickets.
Gene Fein, a historian of Christian Front, notes that a typical street meeting began with the proclamation, “For Christ and Country, I open this meeting in the name of the Christian Front! The leader of the Christian Front is Jesus Christ.” Queens Christian Front leader Daniel Kurz held regular public meetings in which he would address crowds with a paranoid mix of anticommunism, antisemitism, and xenophobia.
According to Fein, Kurz denounced the Russian revolution as a plot by Jews that slaughtered “thirty million Christians,” and proclaimed an immediate mortal danger posed by Trotsky in Mexico, where he said the Russian revolutionary was building a secret army, ready to join American comrades and launch a communist revolution while the military was tied up in Europe.
The Christian Front also issued a “Christian index” listing preferred shopkeepers and stores, and street sales of Social Justice by Christian Front members provided an easy excuse to provoke fights or heckle anyone who “looked Jewish.”
The heavily Irish New York Police Department and judiciary provided a supportive backdrop, going easy on Christian Fronters while leaning hard on antifascists. A rally of the Transport Workers Union — led by Mike Quill, the most high profile Irish Communist union official in New York — was attacked and nearly broken up by rightist mobs.
In August 1939, the hysteria spurred by fascist violence in New York reached its height as the Christian Mobilizers, an even more violent splinter of the Christian Front, took to the streets. Harper’s journalist Dale Kramer reported that New York police recorded the Mobilizers holding fifty meetings a week in that month alone, drawing a total audience of more than twenty thousand.
Not to be outdone, the Christian Front called for an August 19 “Manifestation of Christianity” — a march from Columbus Circle to Union Square, well-known as the home of the Communist Party’s national headquarters and many of the city’s most prominent unions. “I was convinced that the so-called parade,” reported John Roy Carlson, who gained fame with his exposé Under Cover: My Four Years in the Nazi Underworld of America, “would serve as the pretext for another bloody riot.”
Coughlin diassociated himself from the demonstration only after intense political pressure was brought to bear from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and Mayor La Guardia’s office.
Despite spectacular street violence and the Christian Front’s remarkable degree of organization, observers were divided on the meaning of the growing movement. James Wechsler cautioned at the time that “a picture of sustained terrorism blanketing the city would be a wrong one,” and that “the Coughlin movement is still a ‘fringe’ affair; whatever mass sympathy it has evoked is of a passive sort, largely confined to the Catholic Church.”
For a variety of reasons, including the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the growing threat of a European-wide war, the fascist threat began to subside after the terrible summer of 1939. But the period provides a vivid image of how a powerful, organized fascist movement could emerge in the United States.
Past and Present
There is much to distinguish Coughlin’s United States from Donald Trump’s today. The country is substantively more diverse than it was seventy-five years ago and the traumatic memory of the Holocaust still renders the open embrace of fascism a ticket to the margins of society.
Nevertheless, three decades of inequality and austerity have impoverished large sections of the American working class — along with declining US political prestige, bloody military adventures, and pervasive outrage at corruption in mainstream politics — have made a growing number of Americans more receptive to xenophobic and racist appeals that give voice to the powerlessness they feel in the face of hardship.
Trump has tapped into this anger and sense of powerlessness brilliantly. But is Trump a fascist whose real politics are being revealed drip by drip? Perhaps. His incendiary speeches have certainly drawn comparisons with infamous demagogues of the American past, including Coughlin. But more pressing than the question of which ideological label most precisely applies to Trump is the larger political force he heralds.
Many liberals and Democratic Party strategists are overjoyed at the light in which Trump’s popularity has cast Republican presidential ambitions, and media speculation has focused heavily on his personal beliefs.
The Left should avoid this lazy politics and focus both on the economic and political conditions that have created a massive and growing constituency that enthusiastically supports Trump’s racist, sexist, and xenophobic worldview, and the potential emergence of a strong far-right movement independent of Trump. “We have been awakened,” a far-right activist recently told New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos.
The past shows that the US is not immune to fascism. We must take the current far-right upsurge seriously and use every tool at our disposal to destroy it.
Joe Allen's latest book is People Wasn't Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.