Opinion | White House

Juan Williams: Obama's dire warnings about right-wing media

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Here's what former President Obama thinks about the far right.

Their brains are numbed by the din of the right-wing echo chamber.

Conservative talk radio and clickbait websites drown their capacity to think with noisy, repeated messages of fear and grievance, he told The Atlantic magazine.

It requires them to "go along with conspiracy theorizing, false assertion, fantasies that Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh and others in that echo chamber have concocted," the former president said in an interview to promote the release of his new book, "A Promised Land."

The first Black president is baffled that right-wing talk hosts have succeeded in marketing Trump as a hero for working-class white people.

Trump is neither a stand-up for the little guy, a Robin Hood populist, nor a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood type of "classic male hero" in Obama's eyes.

To Obama, Trump is a rich-guy cartoon character: "Richie Rich - the complaining, lying, doesn't-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure," he told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.

He explained: "I would not have expected someone who has complete disdain for ordinary people to be able to get attention and then the following from those very same people."

Obama did several interviews for his bestselling book last week. In every sitdown, he found his way back to discussing the political power of right-wing media.

In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" he talked about "truth decay."

He drew a picture of the current political landscape in which "issues, facts, policies per se don't matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy ... The current media environment adds to that greatly. This democracy doesn't work if we don't have an informed citizenry."

In the Atlantic interview, he said with alarm, far-fetched conspiracy theories are circulated until some people "genuinely believe the Democratic Party is a front for a pedophile ring."

The power of right-wing media to distort reality "is the single biggest threat to our democracy," Obama added.

Obama's take on the right-wing media comes across as a warning to President-elect Joe Biden.

In an NPR interview, Obama identified media that is focused on ratings, rather than the well-being of the nation, as one of the biggest challenges that Biden will face upon taking office in January.

"I think Steve Bannon explicitly said, we're just going to fill up the information pipeline with excrement and it'll get very cloudy," Obama said. "It doesn't really matter whether ultimately what we're saying is disproven, it creates confusion and uncertainty in the minds of voters, and that's enough for our purposes of getting power."

Obama is signaling to Biden that misinformation and political tribalism form the basis of Republican hostility to compromise and solving difficult issues facing the nation.

Those factors will not go away with the defeat of Trump.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are not likely to work with Biden to break the political gridlock because, in Obama's experience, they have to dance to the music from the "right-wing media ecosystem."

If he is correct, the right-wing media's echo chamber is a bigger problem than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or any other political opponent on the right.

That means Biden will have a hard time fulfilling his promise to unify the country.

In Obama's time in the White House, he told the Atlantic, the drumbeat from conservative talk radio and websites was so constant, he found that GOP politicians concluded it was "politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic Party."

Suddenly, even reasonable Republicans "couldn't take anything less than a hard line; they had to tolerate conspiracy theorizing that they knew wasn't true - obviously that's pertinent today," he said, pointing to the current situation where congressional Republicans refuse to condemn Trump's failure to concede a clear defeat to Biden.

Looking back, he said he saw the dawn of the current problem in the media's celebrity-like fascination with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) when she became Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) running mate in 2008.

The culture of grievance added to the problem when television reporter Rick Santelli began ranting from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade in opposition to Obama's plan to help homeowners facing foreclosure as a result of the recession that started in 2008.

Santelli became well known for attacking many of Obama's proposals as leading to higher taxes. It was a spark for the Tea Party, the right-wing group that stood against much of Obama's agenda. And it translated into ratings for conservative news outlets.

The control conservative media have over Republicans on Capitol Hill allows the nation to fall into deep political division.

If the media doesn't give Americans "the capacity to distinguish what's true from what's false," Obama told the Atlantic, "then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn't work."

Obama has a lot invested in Biden's presidency.

The success of Biden's first term will depend on defending the Affordable Care Act as well as restoring myriad Obama-era regulations on civil rights and environmental protection, as well as rejoining international agreements like the Paris climate accords.

Trump gained political capital with right-wing talk shows for erasing Obama's work.

Trump may be on his way out, but right-wing media remains as the big boulder on the road ahead for Biden. 

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

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