That wacky Bernie Sanders, as his groupies would have it—daft, even, with the tousled hair and the professed socialism. Why, back in 1987, he even honeymooned in the Soviet Union.
Missing, generally, from these portraits of Sanders as the oddball patron of hopeless causes is the detail of Soviet communism’s butcher’s bill: 20 million lives sacrificed to, which is to say “by,” the regime with which he cavorted in his eccentricity.
In the province where Sanders enjoyed what he called a “very strange” honeymoon, Yaroslavl, for example, the Bolshevik secret police had in 1919 boasted of terrorizing an uprising into submission. The Black Book of Communism excerpts the police report: “The families of the deserters have been taken as hostages. When we started to shoot one person from each family, the Greens began to come out of the woods and surrender. Thirty-four deserters were shot as an example.” There is no record of Sanders having laid a wreath.
Like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who honeymooned in Castro’s Cuba—where totalitarianism’s death toll conservatively ranks in the tens of thousands and would surely have climbed higher had one in 10 people not fled the island since the Revolution—Sanders also visited Havana, hoping to meet the tyrant. Alas, the Lord Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, was only granted an audience with the Mayor of Havana.
Media portrayals that fail to take such episodes seriously reflect the double standard that, a generation after the Berlin Wall’s demise, still refuses to acknowledge communism’s evil. (For another illustration, see this photo essay on life in North Korea, in which there is not a concentration camp to be found.)
Early 20th century liberalism divided between staunch anti-communists and Stalinist apologists. That debate had the virtue of clarity and moral seriousness. The Sanders phenomenon risks lapsing into a petty nostalgia that, by making flirtation with evil adorable, also renders it trivial.
Totalitarian communism and National Socialism were the twin evils of the 20th century. Yet as the journalist Michael Kelly noted in the late 1990s, the intelligentsia takes only one of them seriously. Had any candidate for the Presidency indulged in a youthful fling with Nazi sympathizers, he would be immediately disqualified. Sanders’ dalliance with Soviet communists, in the full blossom of adult responsibilities, not only escapes serious attention, it renders him colorful.
So do such astonishing displays of egoism as the Lord Mayor’s open letter to the people of Nicaragua disavowing, on behalf of the burghers of Burlington, American policy toward the Sandinista regime. Those who have had enough of grandiosity emanating from the White House may be wary of what someone who acted thusly as Mayor of Burlington would do installed behind a desk in the Oval Office.
A test of Hillary Clinton’s seriousness would be whether she is willing to make these aspects of Sanders’ record what they ought to be: a measure of his own seriousness, either because his moral judgment is appalling or because it is flippant. Neither would commend him.