Every economic apocalypse needs a good crypto-fascist representative of the working man to drum up popular outrage. Last time around, it was Father Charles Coughlin. Who's going to answer the call now?
Coughlin was a Catholic priest whose CBS radio show reached an estimated third of the country during the Great Depression. He initially supported the New Deal, but his admiration for Roosevelt quickly curdled into rank anti-Semitism and kill-all-the-bankers rage. He was among the first to use the emerging mass media to build up his audience into his own political constituency, a power that he used to talk up Hitler and Mussolini, uncover various Jewish conspiracies, and inveigh against Wall Street.
The current climate cries out for a similar media figure to focus and control our Bailout Rage. He or she could come from any medium—radio, television, the web—and any political stripe. From the left, an anti-capitalist ranter could rise to greatness by relentlessly attack the privileged elites who got us into this mess; from the right, a bilious Real American could stand athwart Obama and shout "lynch!"
So who will it be? Here are the candidates, and their odds of reaching Coughlin's heights :
He's basically been angling for the Coughlin gig for the past 15 years, but real fire-and-brimstone demagoguery is hard to pull off absent a genuine political or economic catastrophe. And prior to 2006, he was hobbled by the fact that his own party was in power, depriving him of a convenient foil to rail against. He seemed to be making a play for Coughlin-esque heights last year when he launched a campaign against price-gouging oil company executives. So it's curious that now, at the very moment when his dream is so close, he seems to be calming down a bit. When O'Reilly decides that the time is ripe to start calling for "the folks" to march on Washington, we'll know, but for now he seems content to give Steve Doocy pop quizzes. Odds: 3-4
The nightmare scenario. Beck is an emotionally unstable Mormon who believes literally everything he reads on Free Republic. He's begun announcing life-encompassing militaristic campaigns like the 912 Project, which is designed to order his audience's lives in accordance with his nine principles and 12 values, and says things like "this is your country, you are still in control. … Now you're being forced to bail those people out. There are more of us than there are of them. We surround them." Even the Fox folks are getting worried. Odds: 1-2
A poor man's demagogue. He wanted it badly, but bet on the wrong horse with the whole Mexico thing. Now immigrants are fleeing the other way over the border to escape our catastrophe, and Dobbs is thrashing about for an issue to get people's blood boiling. Defending corporate jets for bailout recipients isn't going to do it. Odds: 1-10
He's got the self-regard for the job, and he knows how to pick targets and keep firing. But Olbermann is at heart a pointy-headed liberal, and he's hobbled by his allegiance to Obama. He could yet turn on him the way Coughlin turned on Roosevelt and attack him from the left. Still, he obsessively collects trading cards, not exactly the type of quality we like in out cult-of-personality Great Leaders. He should take up hunting. Odds: 1-4
Clearly going for it. But nobody likes him, and he's hit the ceiling on his audience. It takes a fresh new face to really ignite the passions of the sidelined masses, and we've all already formed opinions on Rush. Also, radio is dead. When Coughlin reigned, it was a mass medium, now it's nothing but addled shut-ins. Odds: 1-3
Trying too hard. People want to feel like they're following someone who reluctantly takes on the burden of leadership for the good of the nation. Hannity is a demagogue's sidekick at best. Odds: 1-5
Why does it have to be a TV or radio personality? Malkin's the ideal demagogue for the web age. She's angry enough, and belligerent, and you can actually feel her hatred for gays et. al. radiating from your computer screen, which helps establish that crucial personal connection with angry, confused followers searching for meaning and order in their lives. She's already demonstrated the ability to inspire her readers to action, as when she published the home addresses and phone numbers of "seditious" UC-Santa Cruz students who opposed the war in Iraq, who later received death threats. Too bad she's not white and a man. Odds: 1-666