The United States likes to call itself a melting pot of people from all nations, creeds, colors, and languages. That's how the story was told in elementary school in the 1970s in the deeply segregated city of New York, and on TV through School House Rock segments sandwiched between the Saturday morning cartoons. In our more nuanced time — built from gray areas — we know it was only ever true for European, Christian, white speakers of fluent English.
And sometimes not even them.
"No Irish need apply," signs famously said, barring from employment the "overwhelming" wave of immigrants fleeing the potato famine that lasted from 1845 to 1852. The famine itself is an important story with many causes, including disease, mismanagement, and even cruelty. Even later, in the 1860s, the Union sent new immigrants from the New York docks to be cannon fodder in the war with the South, leading to the Draft Riots. Today, many of the Irish and their millions of descendants are proud of their heritage — and about as American as you possibly can be.
It was a descendant of the Irish who became one of mass media's most famous racists and a fellow traveler of the Nazis. Father Charles E. Coughlin was a Catholic priest and the founder of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Detroit. Born in Canada, Coughlin preached a particularly poisonous brand of hatred and antisemitism in the 1930s. Through his radio show, he reached 30 million Americans a week, or one-quarter of the U.S. population at the time. For comparison, today's best-known racial dog whistler, Tucker Carlson, reaches about 3 million out of 340 million.
Coughlin's racism focused on the hatred of Jews, who he did not view as truly American. Just like the arguments against the "other" and immigration today, one key focus in his rants against Jews was economic. Conspiracy theories and stereotypes have linked Jews with control over world finance and certainly the banking system; remember, as Coughlin was preaching in the 1930s, it was in the wake of the great financial collapse of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
Coughlin was democratic in his hatreds, targeting not just Jews for his rants. He wasn't fond of immigrants in general, claiming that newcomers to the U.S. (who were largely white and European at the time) were taking "American" jobs. It was an argument that pre-dated Coughlin and has lasted long past his expiration date in 1942 when a new bishop in Detroit told him to shut up or be defrocked.
Coughlin stands out more for the size of his audience than his attitudes. At the time he was broadcasting his hateful message, American attitudes were stridently anti-immigrant, as evidenced by the immigration laws that were passed. Most Chinese would-be immigrants were denied entrance to the U.S. from the 1880s until 1942. Similarly, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act limited immigration to the U.S. to just 164,667 people per year, with the British Isles coming out on top for the number of immigrants allowed with more than one-third of the total. It lasted until 1965, with some exceptions for Europeans displaced by World War II along the way.
There are plenty of people who would like to go back to Johnson-Reed, with its express eugenic goals, even if they've never heard of the act itself. There are always people who want to go backward, and hatred and fear will take them there.
It helps to have someone to stoke those fears and inflame those hatreds. In the 1920s and 1930s, Father Coughlin saw enemies without and also within. Today, his despicable message lives on thanks to the departed fork-tongued Rush Limbaugh; former President Donald Trump's lackey and apologist Sean Hannity; the Amen Corner of Fox News as a whole; and the man of the moment, demagogue and hatemonger Tucker Carlson.
Carlson is a near-ideal messenger. He's boyish, clean-cut, and even looks kind of jolly — nothing like the swastika-tattooed, torch-waving, self-proclaimed Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. But they share a language of grievance and a longing for an America that never existed, that can't exist, that we can't allow to exist.
Admittedly, Carlson himself reaches very few people — less than 1 percent of the population. The coverage of Carlson and the endless repeat of his message (witness this article) reaches many more. He sells his contempt to the angry, the ignorant, and those looking for something, someone to hate.
And they're buying in bulk.