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Bernie Barnstorms the Midwest

“I can understand why people voted for Trump based on what he said. For too long the political establishment did not listen to the needs of working families.”

Bernie Sanders speaking to a crowd at James Madison Park on the shores of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Friday, April 12. (Photo: Normon Stockwell)

Bernie Sanders speaking to a crowd at James Madison Park on the shores of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. Friday, April 12. (Photo: Normon Stockwell)

More than 1,000 chilly Wisconsinites stood in the wind at James Madison Park on the shores of Lake Mendota in Madison, to hear Bernie Sanders speak late in the afternoon on Friday, April 12.

As the state flag, the American flag, and an Earth flag snapped in a stiff breeze, and a youngish crowd of Bernie supporters rubbed their hands and stamped their feet to keep warm, James Alexander, a cook and union organizer, explained that kitchen staff simply can’t get affordable health insurance.

“Now imagine if we organized the country,” he said. “We can win Medicare for all . . . I need health care. I need President Bernie Sanders.”

Medicare for all, which Sanders proposed before it became a rallying cry for other Democrats, was a big hit with the crowd, judging by the banners, T-shirts, and even a yarmulke touting the idea.

There was also a strong labor theme to the event. Sara Trongone, the co-president of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants Association, introduced Sanders, emphasizing how union-busting in Wisconsin and across the country contributed to the erosion of the middle class.

“Thank you for coming out on this warm, sunny, beautiful afternoon,” Sanders joked when he walked up to the podium.

He thanked Wisconsin for voting for him by a hefty margin in the 2016 presidential primary, and said that in his current tour of swing states, including Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, he aims to rally the Midwest to defeat Donald Trump, “the most dangerous American president in modern history.” He aims, he said, to replace Trump’s dishonest and bigoted rightwing populism with the progressive populism the Midwest longs for.

“Whether you are a progressive or a conservative or a moderate, you are not proud that you have a president of the United States who is a pathological liar,” Sanders said.

“Trump’s biggest lie of all was that he was going to defend the working class of this country.”

Trump’s biggest lie of all, he added, was that “he was going to defend the working class of this country and take on the powerful special interests.”

“I can understand why people voted for Trump based on what he said,” Sanders said. “For too long the political establishment did not listen to the needs of working families.”

But Trump lied about taking care of working people: Instead of expanding health care, he has supported the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act that could cost millions of Americans their health care coverage, proposed cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, massive tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation of Wall Street, and presided over a growing trade deficit and continuing job losses as companies ship plants overseas.

This is Sanders’s pitch to the “forgotten men and women of America” Trump claimed he would represent: they need a genuine champion of the working class, and that champion is Bernie Sanders.

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“Our job is to finally create a government and an economy that works for all of us and not just for the 1 percent,” he said.

He denounced Trump’s appeals to bigotry, and set out his own principles: economic justice, social justice, racial justice, and environmental justice.

And he went over the ideas he proposed in the 2016 presidential campaign that were dismissed as radical at the time, but that have now moved into the mainstream, including Medicare-for All, and the proposition that the greatest national security risk facing our country is climate change.

All of this went over well with the crowd of University of Wisconsin students, state workers, and assorted Madisonians, many of whom had supported Sanders the first time around.

So did another “radical idea” Sanders proposed, adding “the rightwing media is gonna go nuts about this.” That idea, he said, is “one person, one vote.”

To the Republican politicians who have been trying to make it harder for people of color, young people and poor people to vote, Sanders said: “If you are afraid to participate in free, fair, open elections, you should get the hell out of politics and get another job.”

“We will pass a Medicare for All, single-payer health care program,” Sanders declared toward the end of his speech, getting back to his biggest applause line. The crowd interrupted to chant “Bernie! Bernie!”

But none of this will be accomplished by one politician or one campaign, Sanders warned. It will take a massive grassroots movement.

That movement is what Sanders helped inspire with his 2016 campaign. It has proven to be a strong foundation for his run this year, propelling him to the top of the field in national polls. As he pointed out in his speech, he got more support from young people than Trump and Hillary Clinton combined. And the powerful response to his message, while it didn’t win him the 2016 nomination, set the tone for the political conversation in the 2020 campaign.

That, combined with his appeal to the same disaffected Midwestern voters who chose Trump over Hillary, makes him a formidable contender.

Whatever the outcome of the primary, Sanders has proven that there is potential for a massive popular movement for a economic, social, and environmental justice that could reverse the current downward spiral we are on.

“Now is not the time to be depressed,” Sanders told the crowd, which grew throughout his speech despite the wind and cold, then dispersed somewhere a little warmer to plan for the next phase of the revolution.

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Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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