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"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," Obama told CNN's, Anderson Cooper.
Republicans have been "cowed into accepting" Trump-led conspiracy theories that the race was rigged, which culminated in the January 6 Capitol insurrection, he said.
During the 2020 campaign, several Republican lawmakers spread falsehoods about the election. Eventually, they challenged the results in Congress, mere hours after a violent pro-Trump mob laid siege to the Capitol.
"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 is too important. Our democracy is too important,'" Obama said. "We didn't see that."
Obama added that he never thought the "dark spirits" he witnessed forming within the GOP over his two terms as president — such as "xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, [and] an antipathy toward Black and brown folks" — would take over the party.
"I thought that there were enough guardrails institutionally that even after Trump was elected that you would have the so-called Republican establishment" push back on him, Obama said. He cited examples of Republicans toeing the line with Trump, including when many refused to speak out against his 2017 comments that there were "fine people on both sides" of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.
"That's a little bit beyond the pale," Obama said.
Obama's comments came during a wide-ranging CNN interview, in which he also discussed divisions in the country related to race and the media.
"I'm still the hope and change guy. I hope that the tides will turn," Obama said.