Father Coughlin
Father Charles E. Coughlin (Craine,Detroit)

We’re seeing more and more strands leading back to antisemitism.

In 1939, the FBI infiltrated a violent militia plotting to overthrow the U.S. government.

This group was called the Christian Front. They and their even more extreme offshoot, the Christian Mobilizers, met secretly to discuss what they believed was the hostile takeover of America by radical, anti-Christian left-wing groups.

By this description, the Christian Front was really referring to Jews.

They blamed Jews both for the threat of Communism in Europe and for the unchecked capitalism that led to the Great Depression they were only just recovering from. This was incoherent, but it didn’t have to make sense. It just had to unite them against a common enemy.

Andrew Lapin
Andrew Lapin

The Christian Front considered Hitler and fascism, and its potential to destroy Jewry, to be the true torchbearers of American values. And they believed President Roosevelt was opposing this new world order taking shape in Europe because he was a puppet of the Jews (or maybe secretly a Jew himself).

So, the group trained new recruits in firearms in preparation that, one day, they would take their country back.

The Christian Front existed far outside the political two-party system. But they were taking advantage of a certain hostile climate in America — a time of extreme polarization and division as people struggled under the Great Depression — to push their hateful agenda.

And they were egged on by prominent figures in politics and the media — most significantly, Detroit’s own Father Coughlin at the Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic church in Royal Oak.

The “radio priest,” whose audience numbered in the tens of millions, went all-in on the Christian Front and devoted many episodes of his national broadcasts to them. He praised them for standing up to the far-left Communist sympathizers he said were roaming our American streets. When the FBI arrested members of the Christian Front and charged them with sedition, Coughlin used his show in the weeks leading up to their trial to defend them as protectors of American values. The jury returned no verdict, and all charges against members of the Front were eventually dropped.

Still, by this time in history, American attitudes were beginning to shift away from the far-right ideologues that had run rampant across the airwaves in the years prior. A semi-united American front was starting to be presented against fascism. Coughlin had at one point been the most powerful voice in the country, but he was falling out of mainstream favor the more he chose to embrace the paranoid right-wing fringe that constituted his “base.”

But this fringe, though small in number, was still large enough to fill rallies at Madison Square Garden and violent enough to do serious damage to the country.

And these American fascists (for that is exactly what they were) hung on their hero’s every word. They didn’t trust other media; only Father Coughlin told “the truth.” He was their filter bubble.

In those secret meetings the FBI witnessed, Coughlin’s followers would play his show and cheer, delivering “sieg heils” all the while.

“We will fight shoulder to shoulder and be content to use your weapons,” Coughlin said on one episode. “Rest assured we will fight, and we will win.”

Retracing Our Steps

I often hear that we are living in “unprecedented” times.  But I disagree.

Last week, the FBI arrested members of a new antigovernment militia right here in Michigan. They called themselves the “Wolverine Watchmen,” and they were plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because they believed her COVID-19 lockdown protocols were an affront to American values.

Six men face federal charges to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Six men facing federal charges in plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. TOP (Left-Right): Adam Fox, Brandon Caserta and Kaleb Franks. BOTTOM (Left-Right): Ty Garbin, Daniel Harris and Barry Croft. Kent County Jail/Delaware Department of Justice

Very little separates these new extremists from those of Father Coughlin’s time, except for 81 years.

Like the Christian Front, these men do not fit neatly into our Democratic-Republican orthodoxy. Their politics are unmoored from the mainstream. A Detroit Free Press investigation found that some are vocal Trump supporters, while at least one called the president a “tyrant.”

However, also like the Christian Front, our new generation of domestic extremists are plainly taking advantage of an already violent, heightened climate in America. This is a time when half of the country so deeply distrusts and despises the other half that there is an opening for this kind of terror, because any action is justified when you believe the other side is evil.

Their extreme voices are being amplified on social media, where we are all siloing ourselves inside increasingly extreme echo chambers (watch the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma for more). But they’re also being emboldened by current political discourse — loaded phrases like “Liberate Michigan” can be just as intimidating as loaded weapons in public spaces.

And, unsurprisingly, we’re seeing more and more of these strands leading back to antisemitism.

Dawn Perreca protests on the front steps of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, April 15, 2020.
Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

To take just one example: the QAnon conspiracy theory, a series of incoherent beliefs about President Trump waging a secret war on the “deep state,” has found a wide audience via social media. A recent story in the New York Times reports that QAnon has found a toehold in Germany — where Attila Hildmann, a far-right YouTuber (who is also a celebrity vegan chef), uses his online reach to attach Q to his own beliefs that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a “Zionist Jew” who has aligned with the Rothschilds to establish a “new world order.”

Here’s another example: During this summer’s racial justice protests, mobs of people in Los Angeles vandalized synagogues, Jewish-owned businesses and a statue of Raoul Wallenberg, the diplomat and University of Michigan alum who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Just like in 1939, none of this needs to make perfect sense to the people who believe it. The theories just need to promote a broader atmosphere of fear and distrust and unite their followers against a common enemy (and the Jews are always a convenient common enemy).

Such mindsets also convince people that any other news source is “biased,” deceitful or just outright making things up. They push their followers to go further and further into their own filter bubbles to find the “real” answers — just as Coughlin did to his followers.

There is clearly an undercurrent of anger and hostility here, and it’s bubbling over in terrifying ways during an already inflamed election cycle. When I read about these new militias, I can feel my sense of time collapsing. Very little of the arguments have changed. But that is also what makes this moment slightly more bearable: the knowledge that we have been here before.

I don’t know what’s coming for us on Election Day or the weeks after. But I do know that the JN strives to remain, as always, a source of strength and support for our community, to hold the line against misinformation and violent outbursts while championing our shared Jewish values. We know that fear and paranoia do more harm than good, and that we need to take such violent incursions into our lives with the utmost seriousness.

We are walking a path our people have walked many times before. As long as we can see that path, and trust each other as we venture through it, we can see the way out.