Bernie Sanders has defended voters who backed Donald Trump for president, telling a rally in Boston: “Some people think the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.”
The senator from Vermont was speaking on Friday night at an event staged by Our Revolution, a group set up after his unexpectedly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Our Revolution aims, in the senator’s words in Boston, to create “a Democratic party that is not a party of the liberal elite but of the working class of this country”.
Sanders’ remarks about Trump voters contained a not-so-veiled shot at Clinton, who said at a New York City fundraiser in September that “to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters in a basket of deplorables.
“The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that.”
Clinton’s words became a central feature of the election, the “deplorables” label seized on by the Trump campaign and adopted as a badge of pride among the businessman’s supporters.
In 2020, Democrats will attempt to win working-class voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Trump wins helped secure the presidency in the electoral college despite Clinton winning nearly 3m more ballots nationwide.
Sanders, 75, appeared in Boston with Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts who is seen by many as a possible Democratic presidential candidate.
“Let me tell you something else some of you might not agree with,” Sanders said. “It wasn’t that Donald Trump won the election, it was that the Democratic party lost the election.”
It wasn’t that Donald Trump won the election, it was that the Democratic party lost the electionBernie Sanders
With another jab at Clinton, he added: “We need a Democratic party that is not a party of the liberal elite but of the working class of this country, we need a party that is a grassroots party, where candidates are talking to working people not spending their time raising money for the wealthy and the powerful.
“And when we do that, when we transform the Democratic party, we transform America.”
Tensions between establishment and grassroots elements in the Democratic party – fueled by a primary fight that turned increasingly bitter – have persisted since the election.
In February, former Obama labor secretary Tom Perez beat Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison to be chair of the Democratic National Committee. The contest was seen to be between the branches of the party that back Clinton (Perez) and Sanders (Ellison). The two men, with Ellison appointed deputy, have since sought to present a united front.
Warren, who is up for re-election in 2018, could potentially bridge such divides. The former Harvard University professor has a national profile and popularity gained through support of progressive social policies alongside economic positions in favor of the middle and working classes. She was thought to be among possible vice-presidential picks for Clinton.
On Friday, Warren told the Our Revoultion event about her first meeting with Sanders.
“So some of you know, I was a teacher, researcher, and was doing work about what was happening to America’s middle class,” she said. “This was several years back.
“I got an invitation to come to dinner in Washington DC and I was told it would be with a lot of policy people so I did exactly what you expected me to do – I showed up with a bunch of charts and started talking about what was happening to hard-working families all across this country.”
“One guy with bright white hair … got into it,” she said. “It was like nobody else was in the room. And that was sort of the start of it with Bernie Sanders.”
In his speech, Sanders said: “You can tell the quality of a person by the enemies she makes, and to her credit Elizabeth Warren has made some wonderful enemies.”
Sanders said such enemies included Wall Street and the pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industries. Trump is also no fan of Warren, whom he has repeatedly attacked on Twitter.