Bernie Sanders kicked off his presidential campaign on Saturday not far from the rent-controlled apartment where he grew up in Brooklyn, and forcefully made the case that he is nothing like fellow New Yorker Donald Trump.
Sanders proclaimed himself the Democrat best prepared to beat the incumbent in 2020. The rally was his first campaign event since announcing a week ago that he would run for the White House.
“My experience as a child, living in a family that struggled economically, powerfully influenced my life and my values. I know where I came from,” Sanders boomed in his unmistakable Brooklyn accent. “And that is something I will never forget.”
Sanders has never shied from addressing Trump in stark terms, and during his speech at Brooklyn College, he called Trump “the most dangerous president in modern American history” and said the president wants to “divide us up”.
The Vermont senator positioned himself in opposition to Trump administration policies from immigration to climate change.
Beyond the issues themselves, Sanders, who grew up in the heavily Jewish neighbourhood of Flatbush in a middle-class family, drew a stark contrast between himself and the billionaire in the White House who hails from Queens.
“I did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers, casinos and country clubs,” said Sanders, who has lived in Vermont for decades. He pegged his allowance as a kid at 25 cents a week.
Sanders also said he “did not come from a family of privilege that prepared me to entertain people on television by telling workers, ‘You’re fired'”.
“I came from a family who knew all too well the frightening power employers can have over every day workers,” he added.
More than 300km away in suburban Washington, Trump revelled in his 2016 election win and said Republicans “need to verify it in 2020 with an even bigger victory”.
While Trump didn’t mention Sanders explicitly in a two-hour speech, he railed against the policies of “socialism” in a continued attempt to portray Democrats as out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist.
“Socialism is not about the environment, it is not about justice, it is not about virtue. It is only about one thing – it is called power for the ruling class,” Trump said.
“We know the future does not belong to those who believe in socialism.”
Hours before his speech in Brooklyn College’s East Quad, a line of supporters snaked down the snowy streets.
A reggae band played before Sanders spoke, and he was introduced by a number of supporters including Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who is a co-chair of Sanders’s campaign this year, and Shaun King, the writer and civil rights activist.
King cited Sanders’s participation in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when he was a student at the University of Chicago.
“This is the origin story of an American revolutionary,” King said of Sanders, who will return to Chicago on Sunday evening for a second campaign rally, where he’s expected to further highlight his own activism.
The candidate will make his first trip to the leadoff caucus state of Iowa next week, with plans to campaign in Council Bluffs, Iowa City and Des Moines. He is headed to the early state of Iowa.