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Here's what happened the last time America was captivated by a Steve Bannon

FormerTrump campaign CEO Steve Bannon. Picture: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Breitbart News head Steve Bannon’s ideology is a mix of paranoia, racism, populism, and fascism, and it has shocked many Americans.
  • But this isn’t the first time the US has seen this particular mix of politics propelled by media. Before there was Bannon there was Father Coughlin, a radio host in the 1930s.
  • Coughlin had an epic rise and epic fall, having been veritably banished from the national discourse.
  • Bannon has backed himself into a corner where he must show America that he’s bigger than loyalty to Trump, the Republican Party, and American decency.

Since former White House adviser Steve Bannon and his Breitbart News leapt from the bowels of the internet to the forefront of America’s national political discourse, things have become darker, more racist, and more violent.

Breitbart made its name by using the internet to distribute a worldview that combines fear-induced manias and prejudices of the far right with spurious echoes of populism. In a country where many feel like they have been forgotten by those in power, it’s a heady combination. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the US has seen this before.

We have already had a Bannon, a man who mastered the medium of mass communication of his day to tote a particularly American breed of nationalism that manipulates by preying on the fear that power from above and encroachment from below will squeeze hardworking Americans in the middle. It divides and it intoxicates.

The last Bannon was a man named Father Charles Coughlin. He was a Catholic priest who led the National Shrine of the Little Flower Church in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was also a radio-show host who, at his show’s peak in the early 1930s, captivated a quarter of the country with his Sunday-afternoon broadcasts.

Coughlin’s America was much darker than ours. At the beginning and end of the 1930s, almost 25% of the country was unemployed. War was brewing in Europe. Hitler was rising. And Coughlin’s authoritative air and mastery of what was then a new, relatively unregulated form of communication made him a political force. In 1932 he told his as many as 30 million listeners that it was “Roosevelt or ruin,” according to historian Don Warren, who wrote the book “Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio.”

That power led to wealth and status. He built a megachurch. He was friends with Joe Kennedy, the bootlegger father of JFK, Bobby, and Ted. He hid his wealth through a tangled web of charities and bank accounts. He staged massive rallies that sometimes turned violent. He published the widely circulated weekly Social Justice Magazine.

But in 1936 Coughlin overstepped his bounds in his quest for political power. “Roosevelt or ruin” turned into “Roosevelt and ruin,” as he turned against the president, embraced Hitler and Mussolini, and became ever more shrill about the Jewish international banker conspiracy that he claimed threatened America. Coughlin, after a spellbinding rise, was ultimately muzzled by the Catholic Church shortly after the US entered WWII. He was essentially a prisoner of his own parish until he died in the 1970s.

But his legacy remained. There is a direct line between Coughlin’s rhetoric and what you’ll hear on the polarising conservative talk-radio shows Bannon and Trump’s team mined to build a political platform — between those radios shows and what Breitbart distributes on the internet. Seemingly coming from nowhere, both Bannon and Coughlin fed the country a toxic mess of conspiracy theories, bigotry, and lies, and we swallowed it.

But then we spit it back up.

First the airwaves

Coughlin’s rise was mythical. According to legend, he decided to launch his radio show in the late 1920s because the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of his then humble church. Ultimately he grew his radio network to 60 stations around the country including all the major metro areas. His listeners sent small-dollar donations to his church, and with that he financed the building of his media empire.

“In his approach to anything he was larger than life,” Warren said in an interview with C-Span in 1996. Of course he was also incredibly inconsistent.

Like Bannon, who cultivated a close relationship with Wall Street billionaire Robert Mercer and worked at Goldman Sachs, Coughlin played the market while warning his followers against it. He built wealth alongside the superrich while telling his listeners that the wealthy were the enemy. Both men share a hatred for establishment politicians and convinced their followers that both main parties had failed them.

“We have endeavoured to teach you time and again that there can be no coming out of this Depression until what you earn goes to sustain your wife and your children,” he once told his followers. “But somehow or other, you’re satisfied to sustain the wives and children of those who do the coining and regulating of money, who live in their palaces and travel in their yachts. You want that. You voted for that. You herald that. And it’s time that you take that.”

Any mention of coining and regulating money was a clear dog whistle for anti-Semitism, but Coughlin also made more direct comments about his hatred of Jews and communists. After some of his rallies, some of his followers were known to rove in packs beating up Jewish people in the streets.

Hate speech, as we know, has always been a feature of Bannon’s Breitbart News, not a bug. And when violence broke out between neo-Nazis and protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer, Bannon stood by President Trump’s statement that there were good people on “both sides.”

Contradictions with conviction

Examining Coughlin’s beliefs in 1960, historian James P. Shenton wrote in The Wisconsin Magazine of History that Americans have always had a difficult time naming their far-right movements. Often fascism has been seen as a movement that came to us from abroad. Both Coughlin and Bannon complicate that notion. Theirs is a distinctly American nationalist, isolationist authoritarianism that borrows from the populist left, but mostly the right.

For example, both Bannon and Coughlin dreamed of massive, ambitious government programs to help their followers, but not building a government that could support those programs.

In November 2016, Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter that he was the man “pushing the trillion-dollar infrastructure plan” in which the government would “throw things at the wall.” Ambitious to be sure. But Bannon is also a proponent of limited government.

Coughlin’s ideology had the same inconsistency. When he turned against the New Deal, he railed against it as an agent of communism, while at the same time saying it didn’t go far enough to help his followers.

This was after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, once supported by Coughlin, didn’t make Coughlin feel as if he had enough influence in the White House. That’s when Coughlin turned against the FDR, forming the National Union for Social Justice Party to field a presidential candidate against him. It went nowhere.

After that the Catholic Church started to sour on Coughlin, seeing him as more than a nuisance. The church’s US head, Boston’s Cardinal O’Connell, called Father Coughlin’s speeches “demagogic stuff.” Pope Pius XI didn’t like that he called Roosevelt a liar. Other priests started speaking out against him and Coughlin’s listenership started falling. By the end of the decade, only a few million were listening.

What’s more, the government was starting to take sides in the war in Europe. Coughlin had made overtures to Hitler and Mussolini, offering his help. A member of his staff worked for the Japanese and a few made contacts with the Germans. In 1938 the government passed a law forcing people engaged in such activity to register as foreign agents.

To avoid an ugly public confrontation, President Roosevelt essentially told the Catholic Church to handle its own. It did, and Coughlin was muzzled completely by 1942. At that point, America, unified after Pearl Harbour and sick of his hate speech, had had more than enough of him for years anyway.

First as tragedy, then as farce

Coughlin, like Bannon, believed that his ideology came before the nation. This is a characteristic that led some of Coughlin’s supporters, even the Wall Street millionaire and Nazi enthusiasts, to question his sincerity. Did he really believe in fixing America or did he believe in his own fame? Was he a brilliant political tactician or merely drunk with his own power, flailing about for any source that could add to it?

And so now we are back in 2017, a year when the economy is doing much better, though inequality has hollowed out the middle class and left the poor in worse shape than they have been in decades. In 2017, Bannon still has Breitbart News, which looks less like a news page for nationalists and increasingly more like a fan page chronicling his glad-handing of global leaders.

Steve bannonScott Olson/Getty ImagesSteve Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump and executive chairman of Breitbart News.

The research company he founded, Cambridge Analytica, is under scrutiny by the US government for its role in influencing the 2016 presidential election. White House adviser Stephen Miller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, early supporters of Bannon’s work, have both been caught in the crosshairs of that same investigation.

Bannon’s former patron, Robert Mercer, wrote an open letter to Wall Street distancing himself from Breitbart and its work — especially its incendiary, hate-speechifying columnists. Breitbart is a talk-radio fever dream come to life on the internet, a Coughlin legacy if there was one.

And then there’s his unwavering support for Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. At this point, almost a dozen women have accused him of sexual harassment or assault, some as young as 14.

Privately, people close to Bannon will tell you that he does have something to fear here. Just as Coughlin needed the church’s blessing to speak, Bannon needs the blessing of the Republican donor class to achieve his dream of creating a viable political machine. They need to see him as effective, and if he fails in Alabama in such a splendid matter — by losing to a Democrat in a religiously red state because he insisted on backing a man who has a reputation for preying on young women — then he’s ineffectual.

The Republican donors will think: At least Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, Bannon’s nemesis, didn’t lose a seat in Alabama of all places on God’s green earth.

Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul who spoke with Bannon frequently when he was in the White House, recently renounced him.

And Trump, as we well know, is no fan of losers, either. Meanwhile, in defending Moore, Breitbart editors have taken to telling Trump’s favourite child, Ivanka, to shut up.

A rift between Bannon and the president would be fatal for Bannon. If there’s anything that everyone in this miserable band of an administration has in common, it’s their insistence that they — more than anyone else — have the president’s interests in mind. You hear it from everyone. They alone are the most loyal, they will tell you. They are the most Trump in the Trump administration.

Bannon has backed himself into a corner where he must show America that he’s bigger than that — bigger than loyalty to Trump, bigger than the Republican Party establishment, bigger than American decency.

This is the stuff that comes before the fall.

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