United States Senator Bernie Sanders sat down with Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole on Friday evening to discuss the personal aspects of his political life, his journey from Vermont to Washington and the vision underpinning his work. A partnership with the Ireland.New York Project (I.NY), Catapult and the Sanders Institute, the event was held in the Exam Hall in Trinity College in anticipation of the release of Sanders’ new book, entitled It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism.

As a long queue of guests formed through and beyond Front Square on Friday evening, protestors gathered outside the Exam Hall asking those attending the event to question the Senator about the current situation in Gaza. Protesters’ chants included “Bernie Sanders you can’t hide, you’re denying genocide”, and urged those queueing to attend the National Demonstration, starting at the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square at 1pm on Saturday.

The event began with a speech from Sanders, wherein the Senator expressed his desire to see better relationships between the United States and Ireland. Sanders spoke of the “joys and sorrows of being a United States Senator”, a job which, in his view, has “increasingly more sorrows than joys”.

Sanders further expressed his desire to shed light on the structural issues facing the United States and the world, stressing that “the more important an issue is the less it is discussed”. He stated that the United States and the global economy are moving rapidly towards an oligarchic form of society: “today on this planet, the top 1 per cent own more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent”. This means that the working class is falling further behind as the growth of oligarchy accelerates.

Sanders also noted that “the status quo is working phenomenally well for the people on top”. Crediting this increasingly apparent disparity to the growth of right-wing extremism, Sanders lamented this “distrust in democracy”.

Speaking to the growing urgency of climate change, the Senator mentioned that his home state of Vermont experienced its “worst natural disaster in a hundred years”, with devastating flooding. Sanders noted that “the challenge is that America and Ireland alone cannot solve the climate crisis, every country in the world is going to have to transform their energy system”.

Sanders also touched on the growth of artificial intelligence which, in his view, “gives an unprecedented opportunity to make life a lot better for ordinary people”. The challenge rests in the question of who will benefit from this explosion of technology.

Sanders had to cancel a number of events to vote against a US national security bill in the Senate, which allocates around $14 billion in military aid to Israel. Although the bill passed by 70 votes to 29, Sanders acknowledged that it was “not an easy vote”. While the bill provided support to Ukraine and provisions for humanitarian aid, Saunders explicitly opposed the direct funding of Netanyahu’s government.

Having only recently started touching on the Holocaust and his family connections to it, O’Toole asked: “How much was that a shadow over your own consciousness?” Sanders told the journalist that “it made me do my best to fight against all forms of racism and bigotry that exist”. He continued, noting that “it pains me very much to see demagogues like Trump try and divide people up”.

Saunders also credits his working-class upbringing for providing him with an understanding of the effect of money and a lack of money on your life. He explained that “life expectancy is declining in the US right now”, with the rise of “diseases of despair”, notably drugs, alcoholism and suicide, while medical costs are a major factor in bankruptcy rates.

Sanders tells O’Toole about his involvement in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement in the Vietnam War, a “devastating war” for his generation, he draws connections to the current political climate. He asserts, “This so-called bipartisan policy has been wrong and wrong”, citing American involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chile and criticising the country’s $900 billion military budget.

As the protestors’ sirens and chants gradually make their way into the hall, O’Toole asks about the Senator’s lack of interest in “protest for protest’s sake”. Sanders explains that “politics is more complicated than protesting, change never takes place without years of struggle”.

Sanders fundamentally maintains that the “political system is corrupt in the US”, adding that “it takes a huge amount of money to get elected”. It is from this basis that he defines himself as “proudly independent”, while being the longest-serving independent in American congressional history. In his analysis of the state of American politics, Sanders feels that both the Republicans and the Democrats have been corrupted by “big money”, albeit from different sources. The House of Representatives is “dysfunctional”, in his view, whilst the public is “politically divided”.

O’Toole drove the conversation to the “trap of the two-party system”, asking how the Senator morally navigated the choice of “critically support[ing] Biden”. Sanders acknowledged that “it’s a difficult path to walk down”, recalling his decision not to run in 2016: “I did not want to see Trump get elected by splitting the vote”. Despite having worked together on the American Rescue Plan during the pandemic, Sanders remains critical of President Biden. Sanders stressed that he is “working hard to change his [Biden’s] stance on Israel”.

Looking towards the upcoming presidential election in November this year, Sanders pledges that “I will do my best to defeat Trump, understanding that Biden has not by any means done what I want him to do”. Nevertheless, the Senator stresses that, “Trump is not a typical candidate, it is a debate over whether the US remains a functioning democracy”.

Following two audience questions, posed by O’Toole, a protester stood and questioned why Sanders would not call for a ceasefire in Palestine. The woman then strode through the central aisle further questioning the Senator, prompting O’Toole to call on her to calm down, saying “let him answer the question”.

Although the Senator initially said “I’m not going to answer the question because I don’t like people disrupting me”, he continued, arguing that “I’ve led the effort in the Senate to try and end this war”. He continued, explaining that “I’ve talked about my views on Gaza and I’ve done everything I can”. Sanders tells O’Toole that what is happening is “a horror”, saying that he has “nightmares every night”. He further states that “my dream would be if tomorrow the president woke up to what the people actually want”.