The two chairs set up for Bernie Sanders and event moderator Josh McElveen sat empty onstage for the first half hour of Sanders’s appearance on Monday at the Capitol Center for the Arts.
Instead, Sanders had resumed his familiar spot behind a lectern, with his signature glasses, wispy white hair and wild gesticulations as he talked about the need to take power away from big corporations and lobbyists and return it to the working class of America.
Sanders was in Concord to promote his new book Our Revolution, but the event – cosponsored by the Capitol Center and Gibson’s Bookstore – felt more like a subdued version of one of his presidential campaign rallies.
A year ago, Sanders himself was running for president – winning by a landslide in the New Hampshire primary before going on to run a competitive national race against Hillary Clinton.
The senator was a little-known entity in the early days of the primary, traveling between campaign town halls in a black sedan with Vermont license plates and a bumper sticker from an old senate campaign.
With a chuckle, Sanders remembered that one of his first campaign events was in Concord. A longtime staffer was driving him to the venue, when they realized they had screwed up the directions.
“We began the campaign pulling into the wrong town,” Sanders said, prompting a hearty laugh from the audience. “It was more or less uphill from there.”
He returned to the Granite State on Monday under very different circumstances, with Clinton defeated in the general election and Donald Trump preparing to assume presidential office along with a Republican majority in the U.S. House and Senate.
Sanders, the longest serving independent senator, is suddenly finding himself in the position of trying to revitalize a struggling Democratic Party.
“I intend to do everything I can to transform the Democratic Party,” Sanders said, noting he was recently elected to the party leadership in the senate.
Throughout the primary campaign, Sanders and Trump’s core message was similar – American workers were losing jobs overseas and the results were devastating.
Reflecting on Trump’s win, Sanders said he believed frustration with the status quo in America had reached a boiling point.
“I think the answer is, there is an enormous amount of pain and hurt in America today,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes for people who go to fundraising dinners and write about a $10,000 check to understand what’s going on in some parts of our country, including New England.”
Trump and Sanders were both able to tap into that frustration, drawing rallies by the thousands during primary seasons with a promise of change.
“There were many, many millions of people that were extremely tired and extremely frustrated with the political status quo (and) media status quo,” Sanders said. “What he said is, ‘I, Donald Trump, will take on the establishment. That’s what he said, and people said, ‘you know, we need someone to take on the establishment.’ ”
That was an argument Sanders himself made many times throughout his own presidential bid and was one he echoed on Monday.
Though he was adamant that the United States is doing much better than it was in the days of the Great Recession in 2008, Sanders said too many Americans are still hurting financially.
“There is an enormous amount of economic suffering,” Sanders said.
That suffering of facing rising costs with stagnant wages was affecting people in deep and serious ways, he added.
“Right now in America, there are millions of people who are seeing a lower life expectancy than their parents,” he said. “It has to do with despair. It has to do with people making $10-11 per hour, going nowhere in their lives.”
The despair at not having high paying jobs is having an effect on health trends, giving rise to drug and alcohol addiction and suicide rates, Sanders added.
“I say all of that just to give you an example of why somebody like Trump could win,” he said. “Because what he was is, ‘I understand why you are hurting, and we’re going to do something about it.’ ”
Sanders said he had once anticipated pushing President Hillary Clinton to the left on her policy agenda. Instead, he said, he is gearing up to stand against the climate, health care and economic proposals from the Republican legislature in Washington.
He promised he would try to hold President-elect Trump to his campaign promises to make things better for working Americans, including statements about not cutting entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“We have a list of every single campaign promise he made,” Sanders said. “We are all going to hold him accountable.”
He added, “It’s going to be a messy, difficult fight.”
(Editor’s note: This article was update to reflect that the event was co-sponsored by the Capitol Center for the Arts and Gibson’s Bookstore. Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)