Barack Obama is on a publicity blitz for his new memoir A Promised Land, and he’s already drawn headlines for his warnings about democracy in the face of rampant disinformation in the media.
He does go into some detail about how he himself countered Donald Trump’s false suggestion that Obama was not born in the United States. Trump drew loads of media attention in 2011 as he pursued the birther lie, compelling Obama to ultimately produce his long-form birth certificate.
In his memoir, Obama describes what happened next: Appearing at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that year, he unleashed a brutal takedown of Trump, who was then teasing the idea of a presidential run.
“Fortunately it turned out that the country’s leading distraction had been invited to sit at the Washington Post’s table that night, and those of us aware of what was going on took odd comfort in knowing that once Donald Trump entered the room, it was all but guaranteed that the media would not be thinking about Pakistan,” Obama writes.
That was a reference to what was going on in secret at the time: Plans for a raid to take out Osama bin Laden, with U.S. intelligence having been tipped to his whereabouts in Pakistan.
Obama writes that he went to the dinner that night, “my face fixed in an accommodating smile, as I quietly balanced on a mental high wire, my thoughts thousands of miles away.”
“When it was my turn to speak, I stood up and started my routine. About halfway through, I turned my attention directly to Trump,” he writes.
Obama needled Trump over the birth certificate matter, but also mocked him for Celebrity Apprentice.
Obama writes, “As the audience broke into laughter, I continued in this vein, noting his ‘credentials and breadth of experience’ as host of Celebrity Apprentice and congratulating him for how he’d handled the fact that ‘at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks….These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled.'”
He went on, “The audience howled as Trump sat in silence, cracking a tepid smile. I couldn’t begin to guess what went through his mind during the few minutes I spent publicly ribbing him. What I knew was that he was a spectacle, and in the United States of America in 2011, that was a form of power. Trump trafficked in a currency that, however shallow, seemed to gain more purchase with each passing day. The same reporters who laughed at my jokes would continue to give him airtime. Their publishers would vie to have him sit at their tables. Far from being ostracized for the conspiracies he’d peddled, he in fact had never been bigger.”
Promised Land is just part one of the Obama memoirs, as it goes through the death of bin Laden. But Obama still devotes a number of passages to Trump’s rise as a national political figure, and makes it clear the extent to which he believes that the Celebrity Apprentice host was aided and abetted by a political environment where entertainment and politics have linked.
“What I hadn’t anticipated was the media’s reaction to Trump’s sudden embrace of birtherism—the degree to which the line between news and entertainment had become so blurred, and the competition for ratings so fierce, that outlets eagerly lined up to offer a platform for a baseless claim,” Obama writes, adding that it was not just Fox News that gave Trump a platform but ABC’s The View and CNN. He also singled out NBC’s Today, “the same network that aired Trump’s reality show The Celebrity Apprentice in prime time and that clearly didn’t mind the extra publicity its star was generating.”
“Outside the Fox universe, I couldn’t say that any mainstream journalists explicitly gave credence to these bizarre charges. They all made a point of expressing polite incredulity, asking Trump, for example, why he thought George Bush and Bill Clinton had never been asked to produce their birth certificates. (He’d usually reply with something along the lines of ‘Well, we know they were born in this country.’) But at no point did they simply and forthrightly call Trump out for lying or state that the conspiracy theory he was promoting was racist. Certainly, they made little to no effort to categorize his theories as beyond the pale—like alien abduction or the anti-Semitic conspiracies in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And the more oxygen the media gave them, the more newsworthy they appeared.”
Obama does make reference to the way that he drew on celebrity figures to help propel his rise, including Oprah Winfrey, and how his White House embraced showbiz talent, with the likes of Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan performing as part of a regular PBS concert series. And in promoting the book, Obama will sit down with Winfrey, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, among others.
He does connect Trump’s spreading of conspiracy theories to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner’s distortions of Obama-era policies, but “the only difference between Trump’s style of politics and theirs was Trump’s lack of inhibition.”
Obama writes, “While I doubted that he was willing to relinquish his business holdings or subject himself to the necessary vetting in order to run for president, I knew that the passions he was tapping, the dark, alternative vision he was promoting and legitimizing, were something I’d likely be contending with for the remainder of my presidency.”
In his interviews promoting Promised Land, Obama has suggested that the media environment has only worsened since he left office, particularly with the growing power of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter. On 60 Minutes, Obama suggested that one of the solutions to the current polarization — fueled by a failure to even agree on a common set of facts — lies at the local level.
“I think we’re going to have to work with the media and with the tech companies to find ways to inform the public better about the issues and to bolster the standards that ensure we can separate truth from fiction,” he said.
He added, “I am somebody who does not blame the current partisanship solely on Donald Trump or solely on social media. You already saw some of these trends taking place early in my presidency. But I do think they’ve kept on getting worse.”
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