Jonathan Zimmerman: Our Very Own Father Charles Coughlin?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. His e-mail address is]

Is Fox News host Glenn Beck our own Father Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest" who railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s?

That's become a common refrain among liberals, who hear echoes of Coughlin in Beck's attacks on President Obama. Conservatives recoil at the charge, of course, noting that Coughlin vilified Jews. No matter what you think of Beck - who joined Fox in January and already draws more than two million viewers every evening - he's no anti-Semite.

But he's also no Coughlin, whose attacks on poverty amid plenty would surely earn him the label "leftist" - or even "socialist" - on Fox News today. Indeed, before he descended into Jew-baiting, Coughlin's chief target was economic inequality. And that's what's missing from the rants of Glenn Beck and his fellow commentators on Fox, who have managed to make me nostalgic for the days of . . . Father Coughlin.

Let's be clear: Coughlin was a kook, not just an anti-Semite. He claimed the Great Depression was caused by a conspiracy of international bankers who undermined America's sovereignty and economy. After briefly supporting Roosevelt, Coughlin condemned him as a tool of these corporate moguls and - most bizarrely - as a communist.

But Coughlin also indicted free-market capitalism, which had left millions without work or homes. Then, as now, Coughlin's native Detroit had the highest unemployment of any major American city. In the cold Michigan winters, jobless men shivered on bread lines or huddled in soup kitchens. To Father Coughlin, it was sinful - not just unfair, but a crime against God - for the poor to suffer while others prospered.

Consider the stated principles of Coughlin's ill-fated National Union for Social Justice, which he founded in 1934. "I believe in upholding the right to private property, yet in controlling it for the public good," Coughlin declared. He went on to demand the nationalization of "public necessities," including the banking, oil, and natural-gas industries.

Coughlin also included a shout-out for progressive taxation, particularly in the event that America went to war. "For the defense of our nation and its liberties, there shall be a conscription of wealth as well as a conscription of men," he wrote.

Most of all, Coughlin insisted, federal policy should aid the least fortunate. "I believe that the chief concern of government shall be for the poor," he said, "because the rich have ample means of their own to care for themselves."

Now, close your eyes and try to picture Glenn Beck uttering any of these lines. You can't. Like Coughlin before him, Beck hints at conspiracies of unnamed forces - both inside and outside government - that are somehow to blame for our economic morass. But we never hear him talk about the most desperate victims of the crisis, or what the rest of us might owe them.

In March, for example, Beck took to the airwaves to suggest that the Obama administration was plotting a fascist coup. "We are a country that is headed toward socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest dreams," he thundered.

Beck went on to rehash a rumor about the Federal Emergency Management Agency setting up concentration camps, noting darkly that he had been unable to debunk it. "If you have any kind of fear that we might be heading toward a totalitarian state, look out," Beck concluded. "There's something going on in our country that ain't good."

He's right. But it's got nothing to do with fascism or FEMA. It's hard times, plain and simple. And times are hardest for the poor, whom Father Coughlin - despite his conspiratorial fantasies - never forgot.

That's the key difference between Coughlin and his modern-day descendants on Fox News. Of course, Beck & Co. pose as defenders of the "common man" and the "average American." But the average American still has a roof over his head and food to eat. The poorest Americans don't.

"What happened to the country that loved the underdog and stood up for the little guy?" Beck asked his growing TV audience in March. It's easy to imagine Father Coughlin asking the same thing. In response, though, he raged against an America that let some citizens flourish while others starved.

Too bad Glenn Beck doesn't. In this narrow sense, I wish Beck were more like Father Coughlin. With Beck and Fox News, you get all of Coughlin's paranoia, but none of his concern for social justice. And that's bad news for all of us.

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E W - 3/11/2010

Calling Beck a modern-day Father Coughlin is laughable at best.

All Beck and Coughlin have in common is having popular radio shows. That’s it. Perhaps it’d be best for people not to throw names around when they don’t even know the history behind the names or the ideologies they mete about.

Coughlin- Advocated social justice, was anti-Semite, supported/started unions, wanted to increase inflation, wanted redistribution of power and wealth, and have government control of businesses to stop the oppression from “evil” capitalism. Beck…yeah, none of that.

All in all…Coughlin was a progressive, which advocates for the same goals as communism.

Many may not like to admit it, but if you actually listen/watch Beck’s stuff and then actually look up the real history instead of listening blindly to a politician, you begin to see he’s got some strong points. Further, when all his opponents can’t even argue him, but just call him names, the more you begin to realize…he tends to be right.

On a final note- Fascism is NOT a right-wing phenomenon (and right-wing is not synonymous with conservatism). Communist propaganda successfully got Fascism to be portrayed as right-wing, when in fact it had the same beliefs, values, and tactics as Communism. Fascism, socialism, and Communism are all left-wing phenomena (one thing I have noticed Beck to be wrong on, btw). The right-wing is anarchism.

Also, I don't see why radical "right-wing" is more dangerous than radical "left-wing." Granted, again, Fascism is left, not right, but either way, Communism was responsible for far more deaths than Fascism.

tom wible - 5/6/2009

R.R. Hamilton - 5/5/2009

I'm going to print this article out and show it to my teenage daughter to show her that when she goes to college in a few years, she's likely to be smarter than the history professors she encounters.

So it's "become a common refrain among liberals [as socialists in the U.S. call themselves now]" that "Fox News host Glenn Beck our own Father Charles Coughlin"? Gee, let's see how well that analogy fits:

As Zimmerman admits, Beck is not an anti-Semite or a redistibutionist. About all that connects Beck to Coughlin is their popularity with people who watch the bankers and bureaucrats connive to shaft them.

To find a really analogous modern equivalent to Fr. Coughlin, let's do a checklist: We need to find someone who is (1) a religious figure, (2) an anti-Semite, (3) a redistributionist, (4) who was a sometime supporter of the Democratic president, and (5) who had his own cable news show.

*Unfurls a poster of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.*

And this Zimmerman zinger cannot pass without notice: "Coughlin also indicted free-market capitalism, which had left millions without work or homes." The notion that "free-market capitalism" impoverished millions is so ridiculous that I'm almost surprised that anyone claiming to be intelligent can make such a statement in the 21st century. Free-market capitalism enriches, not impoverishes -- except when it's impoverishing the idle or silly rich. If free-markets were going to "impoverish millions", why did they wait until 1930 for it? The markets were far freer before 1930. Somehow the markets corrected -- always in less than two years -- all the "bank panics" of American history: 1799, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, and 1907. What was different about the Panic of 1929? What fundamental changes to the U.S. banking system occurred between 1907 and 1929? Answer that, and you'll probably find the answer to why the Panic of 1929 became the Depression of the 1930s.

R.R. Hamilton - 5/5/2009

Lorraine Paul said, "Good heavens! You call ... Ron Paul leftist, Mr Wolberg? Surely you jest? However, if not, you really should travel more."

Mr. Wolberg, you'll have to excuse Ms. Paul. As with all Communists (she's self-identified), there is an intellectual sclerosis that twists information as it moves from the eye to the brain. Rest assured that all the anti-Communists here understood you correctly when you said, "Unfortunately there is little of interest on ... the right, except for the voice of Ron Paul."

So, you don't need to travel to Australia after all, but I would invite you to come to Texas, where you could meet Ron Paul (from the intelligent end of the family) and lots of other interesting free marketeers.

William J. Stepp - 5/4/2009

I haven't followed Glen Beck much, but I did see a video posted on youtube (I think it was linked to by David Beito at the Liberty and Power blog at this site a few weeks ago), in which he showed a chart of how the Federal Reserve's monetary policy has eroded the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar by quite a lot since 1971. Before 1971 the dollar's purchasing power was fairly stable (in relative terms, even though there were periods of inflation, such as the 1960s) thanks to its convertibility into gold. Dick Milhous cut the dollar's last link to gold in the Crime of '71; since then the dollar's purchasing power has fallen like a rock.
This has hurt the poor far more than the rich, particularly those who haven't taken on much debt; but for whatever reason, critics on the left don't care about this, unlike Beck, Ron Paul, and my fellow libertarians.

Thomas R. Cox's view that "right-wing populism" can easily slide over into Timothy McVeigh and Aryan nation types is a calumny when applied to responsible and honest people such as Glen Beck. (I'm guessing that he had condemed the violence of McVeigh et al. And by the way, left wing populists also have a history of violence.)

Lorraine Paul - 5/4/2009

Mr Wolberg, the same thought did occur to me regarding the fringe elements on the left. However, can you point out to me where you would find the genesis of these elements in the msm as perpetrated on such as Fox News? In other words, where is the leftist Glen Beck paradigm?

Lorraine Paul - 5/4/2009

Good heavens! You call Ralph Nader and Ron Paul leftist, Mr Wolberg? Surely you jest? However, if not, you really should travel more.

You are very welcome to come to Australia, we need the tourist dollars, and we will certainly find a place for you to stay. Only a small amount to cover useage of gas, electricity and water will be asked for.

I promise you a real eye-opener.

Lorraine Paul - 5/4/2009

Mr Cox an excellent point. I would go further and say is the legitimisation all that indirect?

As interesting as Dr Zimmerman's article is, it could be taken further and the question asked...why are these people given a voice?* Hopefully, Dr Zimmerman will do this. There is definitely a lengthy article at play here.

*Please don't give me a 'freedom of speech' argument. After all, how many committed socialists and other leftists are given equal air time on Fox or any other network?

Donald Wolberg - 5/4/2009

Mr. Beck is unusual. But it is less than inspiring for those on the left to see the left slide "less dangerous" than the right. Mr. Beck is certainly not a racist or anti-Jewis, quite the contrary. He is a populist, but so is Mr. Obama. Both are largely vacuous, simplistic and less than intellectually interesting.

So one would conclude that the forced argument againt Mr. Beck is really a matter of whether a left ox or a right ox is being gored or doing the goring. Unfortunately there is little of interest on the left now that Mr. Nader has self-destructed, or the right, except for the voice of Ron Paul.

Thomas R. Cox - 5/4/2009

And the right wing version can slide over into the Timothy McVeighs and Aryan Nation types--or at least give strength to their paranoias by legitimizing it however indirectly.

Larry DeWitt - 5/4/2009

Very nice piece. Your analysis is dead-on.

I think this contrast between Beck and Coughlin reflects a persistent theme in America history: there have always been two broad strains of populism, a right-wing version (of which Beck is a current example), and a left-wing version (of which Coughlin, Huey Long, and others are examples). And for my money, you are right to notice that the right-wing version is far more dangerous than the left-wing version.