Barack Obama on GOP's war against democracy: "Unrecognizable and unacceptable even five years ago"

Obama said he never expected the “dark spirits” that rose during his tenure to take over the Republican Party

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 8, 2021 5:34PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Sean Gallup)
(Getty/Sean Gallup)

Former President Barack Obama said in an interview with CNN Monday that the Republican Party's positions have become "unrecognizable and unacceptable" since he left office.

Obama said he was surprised that the "dark spirits" that rose during his time in office like "xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, [and] an antipathy toward Black and brown folks," have taken over the Republican Party.

"I thought that there were enough guardrails institutionally that even after Trump was elected that you would have the so-called Republican establishement who would say, 'Ok, you know, it's a problem if the White House ... doesn't seem to be concerned about Russian meddling,' or 'It's a problem if we have a president who's saying that ... Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, there's good people on both sides,'" Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper. The first Black president in U.S. history went on to admit that he was surprised that the Republican Party was "cowed into accepting" it.

"We have to worry when one of our major political parties is willing to embrace a way of thinking about our democracy that would be unrecognizable and unacceptable even five years ago or a decade ago," he said.

Obama said that some Republicans finally spoke out after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in January and hunted for lawmakers through the halls of Congress, but many have since walked back their criticism of Trump and now there are "large portions of an elected Congress going along with the falsehood that there were problems with the election." Even Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who voted to impeach Trump and was booted from GOP leadership for her criticism, has backed the party's efforts to restrict ballot access.

"Poof, suddenly everybody was back in line," Obama said, adding that "I didn't expect that there would be so few people who would say, 'Well I don't mind losing my office because this is too important, America's too important, our democracy is too important.'"

It's unclear why Obama believed that Republicans would criticize Trump's rhetoric after he spent years pushing racist birther conspiracy theories en route to the GOP nomination and ultimately the White House. Trump has continued to exert his power over the party after getting more votes than any previous sitting president (despite losing the election) and raising unprecedented sums of money.

Obama during his two terms in office saw the rise of the Tea Party, which has since morphed into the powerful House Freedom Caucus, a far-right group that spent years pushing conspiracy theories about Benghazi and other would-be scandals. At the same time, Republican-led state legislatures pushed voter suppression efforts and drew illegal racial gerrymanders to solidify their grasp on power. After losing the 2020 presidential election amid record turnout, the GOP has introduced hundreds of bills that would make it harder to vote and, in some cases, allow elections to be overturned.

Obama said that Trump convinced his supporters of his lies but also placed blame on conservative media for echoing them to the Republican base.

"There are certain right-wing media venues … that monetize and capitalize on stoking the fear and resentment of a White population that is witnessing a changing America and seeing demographic changes," he said, adding that these outlets "do everything they can to give people a sense that their way of life is threatened and that people are trying to take advantage of them."

Instead of relying on trusted news sources, "you have 1,000 different venues," he said, which has "contributed to that sense that we don't have anything in common."

"We occupy different worlds. And it becomes that much more difficult for us to hear each other, see each other," he added.

Race is at the heart of the growing divisions because it is hard for white Americans to "be proud of this country" while at the same time accepting that "terrible stuff happened," Obama argued.

"The vestiges of that linger and continue," he said. "And the truth is that when I tried to tell that story, oftentimes my political opponents would deliberately not only block out that story but try to exploit it for their own political gain."

Despite growing divisions, the former president expressed optimism that things will improve.

"I'm still the hope and change guy," he said. "My hope is that the tides will turn. But that does require each of us to understand that this experiment in democracy is not self-executing. It doesn't happen just automatically."

Watch part of Obama's interview below:

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh

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Barack Obama Brief Donald Trump Politics Republican Party