Saturday, February 20, 2021

A lineage of American demagogues

The death last week of Rush Limbaugh combined with commentary alleging his uniqueness in American politics brought to mind the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, someone my father --- a huge fan of FDR --- still spoke of with contempt as I was growing up.

The Rev. Mr. Coughlin had been silenced by the time I came along, but in the 1930s and 1940s had commanded a huge army of disciples with a poisonous message combining ultra-nationalism and anti-semitism disseminated via radio broadcasts and in the print media.

At the time, the divide between American Catholics and Protestants was far more evident than it is now, during the 21st century, but Coughlin's appeal was ecumenical, proving that hate can build bridges, too.

So I read with interest an article by James T. Keane headlined "Before Rush Limbaugh, Father Coughlin was America's first demagogue of the airwaves," in the most recent issue of the Jesuit news magazine, America. Click on the highlighted headline to read it, too.

Here's a key paragraph: "It all sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? But that familiarity comes not just from Rush Limbaugh’s use of similar tropes and tactics. Rather, it is because Father Coughlin represented just one of many demagogues in U.S. politics and culture who have been able to successfully pinpoint our greatest fears, our hidden prejudices and our deepest resentments and thus to sway huge numbers of the populace into embracing seemingly contradictory or openly un-American positions. Like Father Coughlin, they are aware that the easiest path to power is to wrap oneself up in an American flag...or hold up a Bible."

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