U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, delivering the keynote speech Kansas Democratic Party’s annual convention Saturday night in Topeka, told a crowd of progressives not to despair in the face of President Donald Trump’s election.
Sanders, who won the 2016 Kansas caucus by more than 35 percentage points, touted the support he received from young voters during his presidential campaign and said that he ended the campaign much more optimistic about the direction of the country than when he started it.
“Our vision, our progressive vision, is not only the future of the Democratic Party, it is the future of America,” Sanders said.
The Vermont independent covered a broad range of topics from voting rights to economic inequality during the hourlong speech.
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But it was his blistering criticism of Trump, whom he called a pathological liar, that provoked some of the most potent reactions from the crowd of about 5,000 people at Topeka High School.
"Instead of draining the swamp, he has brought the entire swamp into his administration,” Sanders said, contending that Trump’s Cabinet picks proved that the new president was not going to fulfill his campaign promises to safeguard Social Security and Medicare.
Sanders mocked Trump as governing by Twitter and called on him to issue a tweet reaffirming this promise.
He accused Trump of seeking to divide the country and warned against xenophobia.
“We are not going to attack our Latino brothers and sisters,” Sanders said.
Sanders also urged the crowd — many of them Democratic Party activists and party stalwarts — to confront the economic hardships that many Americans face, an issue he contended that many politicians of both parties have been unwilling to tackle.
“We have to acknowledge that many, many people in this country have been left behind … that many, many people in this country are in deep pain and they are hurting. We cannot address those issues unless we address that reality,” Sanders said. “And it is a reality.”
People traveled from around the region and lined up in the cold for hours to hear Sanders speak. Many members of the left-leaning crowd went to the event as a way to be reinvigorated after their disappointment in the presidential election.
“This has kind of got me pumped up,” said Connie Niemeyer, a 50-year-old hairstylist and substitute teacher from Kansas City who volunteered for Sanders campaign in 2016. “He’s still fighting for us, so we still have to fight for him.”
Megan Ice, 36, said that she came to the event as a way to cope with her frustration with Trump.
“Bernie’s inspiring, and I wanted to have some hope back because the news is terrible every day of what Trump is doing. … I feel like he’s trying to legislate hate,” said Ice, who manages a radio station in Arkansas City, Kan. “And I want Bernie to help invigorate me back in Kansas.”
Scott Mitchum, 64, traveled with his wife from central Kansas. He said he hoped the audience would be inspired to speak out against Trump’s policies when they return home.
“Talk your neighbors,” Mitchum said. “Don’t be afraid to say this is not right. We’ve got a nutcase in the White House and supported by a bunch of nutcases and they’re not going to give up, so we can’t give up.”
“It should empower people. And if it doesn’t, they wouldn’t be standing here in the cold,” he added.
The main speech was followed by a smaller event in which the senator played civics teacher for a group of Topeka high school students. Sanders posed questions to the students about the cost of college and quizzed their knowledge of civil rights.
"Stay involved. Ask hard questions of your teachers and your parents,” he said before exiting the auditorium stage.
Adreon Horn, a Topeka High junior, said that “having a person like this just in our school is astonishing.”
Kansas Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat, said that booking Sanders as the keynote speaker was a major victory for the state party and that he thought it would help the party grow its base as it gears up for 2018, when the governor’s office and four congressional seats will be on the ballot.
“I think the Democrats really did a coup — I had nothing to do with it — in getting Bernie to come here to Kansas,” Hawk said. “I think any party needs to really tap into the next generation, and I think this is one of the great ways to tap into the young people. You see a lot of young faces.”
Tifanni Walker, a 24-year-old communications specialist from Leavenworth, said that she participated in the caucus last year for the first time and pointed to Sanders’ candidacy as the reason.
“It kind of just took somebody like Bernie to make us want to get out there and do this,” she said.