The forebears of Trumpism: Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin and other world-class bigots
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is certainly a phenomenon but it is hardly an unfamiliar phenomenon. It nonetheless remains mysterious to “mainstream” journalists and commentators. They marvel–or purport to marvel–that politics is about entertainment and animosities as well as policy, that some people not only get angry but also express their anger in nationalist bombast and groundless conspiracy theories, that many voters hold ideologically incongruous beliefs (incongruous at least by current mainstream standards), and that evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants cast their ballots for reasons other than religious doctrine. In occasional backward glances, they allude nervously to “populists” (generally framed negatively–as is the case with almost all “ists” who receive mainstream media notice), conflate world-class bigots with essentially decent figures like Huey Long and William Jennings Bryan, and recycle Richard Hofstadter’s patronizing and psychologically reductionist phrase “paranoid style in American politics.”i
All analogies have their limitations; 2015 isn’t 1920, 1938, or 1968. Nonetheless, some accurate history would help to illuminate the continuities and changes Trump represents. The place to start is with the world-class bigot Henry Ford.
Starting in 1920, Ford’s newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, began publishing the “neglected truth” that the United States along with much of the world was controlled by a small group of international Jewish conspirators. The newspaper series Americanized themes found in the notorious Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, ostensibly the minutes of a meeting of the leading conspirators but actually a fantastic forgery by anti-Semitic Russian monarchists. On the American side, Jews–invariably acting as Jews–overwhelmed wholesome entertainment with erotic jazz and lascivious films, fixed the 1919 World Series, and created the exploitative Federal Reserve System. Many of the Independent articles were republished in small volumes called The International Jew. Bigots at home and abroad hailed the series–including Adolf Hitler.ii
According to The International Jew, the conspirators controlled both Communism and capitalism, all the better to destroy Christian civilization in a two-prong attack. A seemingly odd mix of beliefs was nothing new to Ford. On the one hand, he paid high wages to some factory workers and brutalized others for trying to organize labor unions. He opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in Mexico as well as U. S. entry into World War I and then ran for senator from Michigan in 1918 at Wilson’s behest. When the Chicago Tribune attributed his anti-war opinions to Ford’s ignorant idealism, he sued for libel and in 1919 won a hollow legal victory. On the witness stand Ford displayed his ignorance of most matters unrelated to automobiles.
Thereafter, Ford’s copious opinions reached the world primarily through the filter of loyal assistants. In 1927, facing lawsuits for libeling Jews as individuals and as a group, he slipped through this loophole to falsely deny his anti-Semitism. According to Ford’s penitent public statement, he paid slight attention to his own newspaper and thus only recently noticed its seven-year infatuation with The Protocols.
Nothing in this record diminished Ford’s high reputation among most Americans. There was a Ford presidential boom in 1923, though it remains unclear whether the reclusive automaker dreamed of occupying the White House or simply went along with a publicity stunt orchestrated by his aides. In either case, several (admittedly unscientific) polls showed Ford far ahead of other contenders including incumbent President Warren Harding.iii
By the late 1930s Father Charles Coughlin, the famous “radio priest” of the Great Depression, had succeeded Ford as the foremost American anti-Semite. Coughlin first attracted national attention as a critic of the Ku Klux Klan, President Herbert Hoover’s inadequate response to the Depression, and financiers he held responsible for the economic slump. He pronounced the 1932 election a choice between “Roosevelt or Ruin.” Coughlin’s formula for a decent society drew heavily on Roman Catholic social doctrine going back to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. The National Union for Social Justice, which he founded in 1934, wanted both to shrink government and to create a social order in which every family was guaranteed a living wage. While accepting labor unions in principle, Coughlin detested the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in fact.iv
Ultimately Coughlin found the New Deal too coercive and Roosevelt too inattentive. In 1936, along with Dr. Francis Townsend, who advocated pensions for the elderly as a way of pumping up the economy, and Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, former chief organizer for Senator Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth campaign, Coughlin created the Union Party in an effort to defeat FDR. The Union Party nominee, Representative William Lemke, was swamped on Election Day.
For years Coughlin’s large audience could live with his shifting alliances and apparent ideological incongruities. Many listeners still admired him even after rejecting his advice to vote for Lemke. Indeed, no more consistent than the priest himself, many of them liked both Roosevelt and Coughlin. In 1938 Coughlin’s magazine Social Justice began to publish The Protocols. Anti-Semitic propaganda from Nazi Germany followed. After the United States entered World War II, the Catholic Church faced the choice of silencing Coughlin or watching his trial for sedition. Coughlin was silenced.
Gerald L. K. Smith kept on going. While assailing the New Deal and CIO, Smith never entirely lost his interest in economic redistribution, a legacy from his years with Huey Long. In 1942 he ran a strong race for the Republican senatorial nomination in Michigan. Above all, encouraged by his occasional patron Henry Ford, Smith became obsessed with an alleged international Jewish conspiracy. In the late 1940s he went public with this belief and later republished excerpts from the Protocols. After Smith succeeded Coughlin as the country’s foremost anti-Semite, the public attention he craved diminished more-or-less steadily until his death in 1976.v
As the public eclipse of Coughlin and Smith showed, one groundless conspiracy theory–the one centered on an alleged cabal of evil Jews–was becoming taboo. The post-World War II Red Scare demonstrated that another conspiracy theory, this one inherited from the post-World War I Red Scare, could be renovated for use during the Cold War. In brief, a tight-knit conspiracy stretched from the Kremlin not only to the small American Communist party, but also to the State Department, labor unions, civil rights organizations, Hollywood studios, classrooms at all levels, and civil liberties groups (“anti-anti-Communists”).
Although a relative late-comer to the national stage, Senator Joseph McCarthy stood out as the country’s most flamboyant anti-Communist from 1950 until his censure by the Senate in 1954. In one remarkable performance McCarthy accused General George Marshall of walking “hand in hand” with Joseph Stalin in a corollary conspiracy to turn China over to Mao-Tse-tung. According to McCarthy’s fans, his basic story rang true even if specific accusations proved false. McCarthy enjoyed plenty of company among countersubversives in Congress. Nevertheless, given his extraordinary skill as a demagogue, the misleading label McCarthyism is aesthetically appropriate for the second Red Scare.vi
Even during his heyday McCarthy’s effect on American life never equaled George Wallace’s a decade later. Shortly after his inauguration as governor of Alabama in 1963, Wallace established himself as the foremost flesh-and-blood symbol of southern white resistance to racial equality. Here, too, the flesh-and-blood symbol enjoyed plenty of ideological company in high office. Yet none of his fellow bigots was Wallace’s equal as the flamboyant champion of southern whites rage against “Niggers” (a term he used frequently in conversation). vii
Wallaceism spread North in 1964 with his challenge to Lyndon Johnson in several presidential primaries. A strong showing among white working class and Roman Catholic Democrats made Wallace the leading symbol of the nationwide “white backlash.” In the North Wallace played down his segregationist intransigence. Rather, over the next four years he assailed bearded hippies who undermined sexual morality, bureaucrats (often bearded too) who infringed on individual liberty, and socialist Supreme Court justices who banned God from the classroom. Unlike condescending “pseudo intellectuals,” he sympathized with common men and women–partly because he had been a truck driver (which was true though for a shorter time than he implied). In 1968 Wallace ran for president on his own American Independent party ticket against Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon.
Following the familiar pattern, accuracy and consistency were less important than a powerful story told with charisma. Wallace supporters and sympathizers didn’t complain that he assailed big government in Washington while seeking federal funds for Alabama. When it came to benefits like social security, they felt the same way. According to polls in 1968, Wallace voters were more likely than either Nixon or Humphrey voters to think that the United States should not have intervened in Vietnam.
Despite an inept campaign staff, small budget, and running mate, General Curtis LeMay, who mused in public about the virtues of “limited” nuclear war, Wallace won 13.5% of the vote. President Nixon worked hard over the next four years to co-opt his constituency. Although Wallace was paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet in 1972, he remained a factor in Democratic presidential politics through 1976.
Where does Donald Trump fit into this bricolage of countersubversives, bigots, and opportunists? Like Henry Ford, Trump has a lot of money, though not nearly as much as Ford had. On the other hand, he is not personally alienated from the corporate elite. As a multi-billionaire he can get away with hyperbolic quips about the very rich that contain several grains of truth. Unlike Trump’s gross insults to women and Hispanics, his comments about Wall Street “killers” have attracted little attention. Some supporters undoubtedly savor Trump’s notion of sending his favorite financiers into metaphorically murderous negotiations with the Chinese government. Still, we can only imagine the uproar among mainstream commentators if Senator Bernie Sanders, an “ist” on the left side of our narrow political spectrum, referred to Wall Street muggers let alone killers.
When Father Coughlin attacked an alleged international Jewish conspiracy in the late 1930s, radio stations cancelled his program. Presenting the same message in the late 1940s, Gerald L. K. Smith also lost access to radio. Indeed, opponents of anti-Semitism convinced almost all news media to stop paying attention to him. Starting in 2011 Trump began to publicize the bizarre “birther” conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama is not a citizen and those who believed otherwise were duped by a cover-up. Yet The Apprentice with Trump as host continued to appear on NBC-TV. With rare exceptions, notably Wolf Blitzer of CNN, interviewers raising the issue treated Trump more gently than lower middle class and working class “birthers.”
Nor has any interviewer recently asked candidate Trump if he still holds birther views and, if so, what remedies he proposes. Should President Obama be impeached? Should Chief Justice John Roberts be impeached for twice administering the oath of office to a non-citizen? Would President Trump’s Justice Department prosecute both of them? Doesn’t Trump know that Obama, as the offspring of an American mother, would be a citizen from his first breath even if he had been born on the moon?
Trump never categorically denied Obama ‘s Hawaiian birth or American citizenship. Rather, his innuendo calls to mind Ford, Coughlin, and Smith, who said The Protocols, whatever its origin, fitted what was going on. Certainly the birther movement is much less dangerous than anti-Semitism, especially anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s. In 2011 President Obama himself teased Trump about his birther beliefs at a White House correspondents dinner. Nevertheless, we should underscore the obvious: a lot of money brings a lot of protection.
A lot of money also evokes a lot of admiration. Off and on for the past century, one article of faith among influential intellectuals has been that a mass movement challenging American capitalism is just around the corner. Yet, especially as capitalists have embraced systematic public relations, admiration for the very rich has survived and perhaps grown despite intermittent economic calamities. Ford was the first and perhaps still the foremost example of such unshakeable esteem.
Effective forms of public relations vary with time, place, and circumstance. Ford barely needed his PR staff when he kept quiet. The inexpensive automobile and sturdy tractor were Ford’s best advertisements for himself. He played at least some part in an industrial transformation of the world; enthusiasts from Michigan to Moscow believed in the centrality of Ford to “Fordism.” On the other hand, Donald Trump, a second generation real estate developer known for the “art of the deal,” needs PR. Trump’s brand marks skyscrapers, resorts, games, food, and clothing. Yet the premier advertisement has been the persona Trump displays on TV and in the movies.
Unlike the reclusive Ford, Trump has mastered the entertainment aspects of politics. Such mastery has never been confined to political “ists” on the so-called extremes. This point needs emphasis because Americans have long been convinced that no mode of communication really mattered before the latest invention–Twitter at the moment. But rallies, newspapers, magazines, radio, movies, and television all had their day.
FDR joked with Orson Welles that there were two great actors in the United States–and Welles was the other one. McCarthy often growled but (as a British journalist pointed out to me a few years ago), some of his Red Scare riffs sound almost musical. According to one fan who screamed in ecstasy at John Kennedy’s motorcade in 1960, JFK was better than Elvis Presley. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson compared George Wallace rallies to Janis Joplin concerts.
Successful political leaders adapt to changes in the favored forms of entertainment. Trump resembles the stand-up comedians who since the 1950s have specialized in insults. Mort Sahl, a creator of this genre, liked to ask, “Is there anyone out there I haven’t offended?” Many of these “insult comics” have built their careers in New York City. Sometimes they half withdraw their barbs with a version of “I’m only kidding.” Trump often plays this game. Moreover, as his riffs roll on and on, his New York accent thickens by accident or intent. Trump’s performances call to mind Don Rickles rather than Orson Welles, Elvis Presley, or Janis Joplin.
A tough guy act has been part of the political show–and for many in the audience, part of the appeal–for a long time. In 1936 Father Coughlin tore off his clerical collar while denouncing “Franklin Double Crossing Roosevelt.” Coughlin’s ally Gerald L. K. Smith vowed to “drive that cripple” from the White House. McCarthy, a former amateur boxer and self-proclaimed alley fighter, proudly defined McCarthyism as “Americanism with the gloves off.” In 1950 he kneed syndicated columnist Drew Pearson in the groin and the resulting fight had to be broken up by Senator Richard Nixon.
The care, feeding and (especially for tough guys) baiting of the press are invariably part of the show. McCarthy’s physical assault on Pearson was atypical, but he was probably the first major political figure to bait the press incessantly. Critics from the Milwaukee Journal and New York Times wrote as if their employers were Pravda and the Daily Worker. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew later used this tactic from time to time. Intimidation of the press frequently works.
Donald Trump recognizes the political value of media baiting even though, in his obnoxious treatment of Megyn Kelley of Fox and Jorge Ramos of Univision, he hasn’t used it very skillfully. But in private he has tried to charm reporters, much as Gerald Smith joked with them, McCarthy drank with them, and Wallace called them “good fellows.” In the long run schmoozing is probably more effective than intimidation. Reporters love a “good story” from a prominent source. Moreover, they typically suffer from personal versions of journalism’s man-bites-dog syndrome: Imagine that, even blowhards and bigots can be good company behind closed doors! viii
Successful political leaders not only express popular hopes and fears in potent sayings and symbols, but they also help to legitimate those hopes and fears. Unfortunately, the fears seem to have greater impact in this chicken-egg ideological dynamic. Henry Ford’s International Jew intersected with many other manifestations of anti-Semitism during the 1920s–a second Ku Klux Klan with four million members minimum, quotas limiting Jewish enrollment at elite universities, and Ernest Hemingway’s ruminations about “kikes.” A decade later Catholic thugs read Coughlin’s Social Justice and beat up Jews. Innocent men, women, and children, most of them black, were murdered and maimed because George Wallace legitimated white racist rage. As a founding father of the Cold War, President Harry Truman exaggerated international and domestic Communist threats well before Joseph McCarthy won a Senate seat in 1946.
Overlap between the so-called extremes and the political mainstream extends to style as well as substance. William F. Buckley, Jr. and L. Brent Bozell, McCarthy’s early intellectual defenders, compared his rough and tough manner to Truman’s. They had a point.
Allies, enemies, and favorite targets also change according to time, place, and circumstance; 2015 isn’t 1920 or 1938 or 1968. Wallace was the last major political leader to seek support from believers in a Jewish conspiracy, and even he courted them covertly. Trump takes pride in his daughter Ivanka’s conversion to Judaism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is his friend.
Although fear of subversion and demands for international toughness never completely disappear from American life, specific Cold War era issues have been forgotten or transformed. Today Vietnam is widely heralded as a bulwark against the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had been an anti-Soviet partner of sorts during the 1970s and 1980s. Now invocations of a Chinese economic and geopolitical threat meet almost no resistance across the political spectrum.
Trump recently mocked PRC leaders in a fake Chinese accent. Then, in one of his insult comic instant recantations, he claimed to “love” the Chinese people. Perhaps Trump senses that Americans dislike China less than televised geopolitical strategists want them to. On the other hand, Trump has positioned himself as the premier voice of anti-Hispanic nativism (while also declaring his “love” for Mexicans and other Latinos).
Insofar as anti-Hispanic nativism appeals to Americans, Trump both exploits and legitimates their feelings in this version of the chicken-egg ideological dynamic. Except for Jeb Bush, his rivals have rushed to equal Trump’s toughness. The proposed “solutions”–ranging from giant border fences to the largest expulsion of a population anywhere since the late 1940s–are much worse than the small, mostly regional problems illegal immigration causes. So far no Republican rival has matched Trump in ahistorical eccentricity. His remark, directed at Bush, rejecting political speeches in Spanish would have surprised Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s and Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s.
At the moment Trump is enjoying his first–and perhaps not his last–political heyday. In poll after poll he has led his Republican rivals despite his formerly amiable relations with the Clintons, three marriages, acceptance of some version of national health insurance, tolerance of higher taxes on the very rich, and opposition to abortion that is both belated and tepid. Perhaps mainstream commentators will finally learn–at least until the next time–that inaccuracies and inconsistencies count for less in politics than powerful stories told with charisma. We don’t have to be post-modernists to see that ideological incongruity lies in the eye of beholder.
What about Trumpism as a popular phenomenon? Will mainstream commentators finally learn–at least until the next time–that ridicule and glib psychologizing serve the cause of self-righteousness rather than the cause of understanding? Even Richard Hofstadter admitted that retrograde practitioners of the “paranoid style” had rational if often ignoble reasons to be mad. In The Age of Reform Hofstadter quoted at lengths from one of the most famous nativist tracts, Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans’s defense of the “Klan’s fight for Americanism” published in a cosmopolitan magazine in 1926. Amid Evans’s celebration of “Nordic” supremacy, defense of segregation, and denigration of unassimilated Catholics and Jews, he asked for understanding of his fellow Klan members. They were, as charged, ” ‘hicks’ and ‘rubes’ and ‘drivers of second hand Fords” but their way of life was being challenged by immigration, economic decline, loosening sexual mores, and “liberal” ideas. Their fears also needed to be understood.ix
Instead of hours of televised Trump, we need long, empathetic interviews with his less affluent supporters conducted by a latter day Studs Terkel.x
i For high brow examples of this approach, see Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated,” New Yorker, August 3, 2014, 50-59, Simon Schama, “Beware the passionate preachers of populism,” Financial Times, August 29, 2015, and George Packer, “The Populists,” New Yorker, September 7, 2015, 23-24..
ii The literature on Ford is enormous and there are several good studies of his anti-Semitism. The account here is drawn from my own, “Henry Ford and the International Jew,” in Leo P. Ribuffo, Right Center Left: Essays in American History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992) 70-105.
iii On Ford’s reputation, see Reynold M. Wik, Henry Ford and Grass-roots America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973), especially Chapter 9.
iv For Coughlin and his allies see Charles J. Tull, Father Coughlin and the New Deal (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1965), David Bennett, Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932-1936 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), Sheldon Marcus, Father Coughlin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), and Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York: Knopf, 1982). The anti-New Deal activists of the 1930s constitute a kind of forgotten right during the belated revival of scholarly interest in conservatism (broadly conceived) in progress since the mid-1990s. This forgotten right included not only Coughlin, Smith, and other founding fathers and mothers of the distinctive far right that began to congeal during the Great Depression, but also more conventional conservatives (for example, the “old progressives” opposed to the New Deal and corporate or philosophical advocates of laissez faire).
v Glen Jeansonne, Gerald L. K. Smith: Minister of Hate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) is the standard biography.
vi The scholarly literature on McCarthy and “McCarthyism” is large and generally excellent; even some conservative attempts to defend him are worth attention. Once again, oddly, the subject has attracted minimal interest during the recent revival of academic interest in the right. As a start, see Richard M. Fried, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), Edwin R. Bayley, Joe McCarthy and the Press (New York: Pantheon,1981), David M. Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York: Free Press, 1983), and Arthur Herman, Joseph McCarthy: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator (New York: Free Press, 2000). Herman’s book is the most serious attempt at rehabilitation.
vii The scant attention paid to Wallace and especially Wallaceites is the oddest omission in the recent revival of scholarly interest in the right. But see Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), Stephan Lesher, George Wallace: American Populist (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994), and Jody Carlson, George C. Wallace and the Politics of Powerlessness (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1981), and Jeff Frederick, Stand Up for Alabama: Governor George Wallace (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2007).
viii For an astute analysis of Trump’s relationship with news media, see Paul Farhi, “For the media, love, hate, and accessibility,” Washington Post, September 2, 2015.
ix Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR (New York: Vintage, 1955) 295-296.
x Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: Avon, 1970), a pioneering work of oral history that still ranks among the most eloquent. Howell Raines, My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York: Penguin, 1977) is perhaps a better model for the study of Trumpism. While focusing on civil rights heroes as his interviewees, Raines also listened to villains.
By Leo P. Ribuffo. Ribuffo teaches history at George Washington University and is author of The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War (1983).