New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker kicked off SXSW this morning with an impassioned plea for a society that operates on “love,” taking plenty of shots at President Donald Trump and his former Senate colleague-turned-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and even hinting at a potential White House run. The Democrat also used his keynote address at the SXSW Interactive event to promote criminal justice reform while also telling the overwhelmingly supportive audience in a packed Ballroom D at the Austin Convention Center that indeed elections have consequences.
“I’ve never seen in my lifetime an atmosphere of fear as I’ve seen now,” Booker said. “I feel a sense of pain about my country right now. [Trump] isn’t backing away from his rhetoric. But if we don’t engage, we are the source of the problem, not the elected person we don’t like.”
Booker’s appearance marked the latest for a high-profile politician at SXSW. Former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama spoke last year, and former Vice President Joe Biden is speaking here Sunday.
On Friday, Google’s Malika Saada Saar, a human rights attorney who moderated the discussion, asked Booker about his political future and whether he might run for POTUS one day. That one got a boisterous response from the crowd. “I’m running from the president, not to the president right now,” he joked. “I don’t know what the future holds, but at this time in my life, I want to be a fierce truth teller. Let’s not focus on 2020; let’s work on the injustices that exist now.”
The senator added, “I never thought I would get to the position I am now when I was a city councilperson.”
Saar said that after the election, her daughter said she didn’t “know what it means to have a president who doesn’t love or respect me.” Booker said he sympathized with Trump voters who are living in an economy that has in some ways left them behind but that citizens should “never give safe harbor to bigotry and sexism.”
Giving kudos to the tech-centric crowd, Booker also said social media and media in general are “essential tools for activists and artists” but cautioned that they could be used to create bubbles. “Look, when I get home, I watch Rachel Maddow when I need to get revved up at night,” he said. “But I also turn on Fox because I want to hear what fellow Americans are thinking. I also turn on PBS because I want to know more about the world. The U.S. isn’t alone in the world, and I want to know what’s going on beyond its borders.”
He added: “I’m a proponent of technology, but I’m not a supporter of the separation that technology allows.”
Talking about pending health care legislation, Booker said he could cite the economic reasons for why the current plan congressional Republicans are pushing is not sound. He said the new bill, if implemented, would leave millions uninsured and the lower rungs of the societal strata more impoverished.
“Trump isn’t the igniting force for all this — things like this happen when people don’t engage,” he said. “Why do many of us think politics is separate from our lives? It’s everything we do in every aspect of our lives. … When there are cuts to earned-income tax credits and other things, people ask, ‘Why are the Republicans doing this to us.’ I say, ‘They aren’t doing it to us — we are doing it to ourselves.’ ”