From the New York Times we learn—it is no surprise—that Bernie Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn who until recently was leading the Democratic presidential pack and may yet end up the nominee, allowed himself and his office (mayor of Burlington, Vt., at the time) to be used by the Soviet Union as part of a propaganda operation intended to undermine and discredit U.S. foreign policy.
During the Cold War, Sanders was what Lenin called a “useful idiot.” Useful is of course a matter of perspective—Sanders has never been of any use to the United States, then or now. If we are to judge by glowing coverage in such Russian propaganda outfits as Sputnik and RT, Sanders’s usefulness to Moscow is experiencing a second life.
For most of the 20th century and all of the 21st to date, the American Left has operated from the assumption that what is principally wrong with the world is American dominance—American economic power (“exploitation”), American military power (“imperialism”), American assertiveness (“warmongering”), American culture (“consumerism”), etc. Conveniently for the Kremlin, that was the view in Moscow, too. Sanders may not have been the ideal channel for Soviet propaganda—the mayor of New York City would have been better—but allies, even allies of convenience, were hard for the Soviet Union to come by in Sanders’s day, what with the gulags and the purges and the hunger-terror and all.
Sanders spoke glowingly about the Soviet Union after his honeymoon there. Like many a useful idiot before him, he reported that he didn’t see much economic privation, as though they would have let him see it. Sanders is a strangely incurious man. He praised the impressive Soviet metro stations, but he apparently never gave a thought to the millions of peasants who were intentionally starved to death when the Soviet authorities seized grain harvests to exchange for the hard currency needed to pay for those and other vanity-propaganda projects.
While he drank and sang folk songs with the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti is how you say “Gestapo” in Russian), Sanders never once mentioned the name of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, novelist, historian, and Nobel laureate whose works were at that time forbidden in the Soviet Union. Sanders never met Solzhenitsyn, who lived in exile only a short drive away from Sanders on the other side of the tiny state of Vermont. Not that Sanders wasn’t a man of culture: he praised the men who kept the gulags full for keeping the price of theater tickets low.
It is worth meditating for a moment on the fact that Sanders and his socialist agenda today speak for a considerable part of the Democratic Party. He is, as of this writing, the No. 2 presidential primary candidate, behind Joe Biden, and before last Tuesday, he was the leading candidate. They talk about “democratic” socialism, but their hearts are never far from the prison camps. The Times reports that Sanders supporters, frustrated with Internet forum moderators who censured them for their threatening jokes, recently demanded: “Are all references to gulags to be considered violent content?” Can’t we have just a little bit of murder? A little bit of repression? (The Times’s excellent reporting on these matters gives one the impression that the paper is trying to make up for its own useful idiocy in an earlier era, with Walter Duranty’s parroting of Soviet propaganda, for which it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.)
But Sanders is not the only useful idiot among contemporary Democrats. There are those who have been remarkably solicitous of every left-wing dictator on the world scene from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chávez (and their legatees), who confess the creed of socialism, who believe that American power is the ailment from which the world suffers: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the dingbat Trotsky of Yorktown Heights; Ilhan Omar, the Jew-hating weirdo from Minneapolis; Rashida Tlaib, the Jew-hating weirdo from Detroit; the Jew-hating weirdo from Brooklyn; the millions of Democrats who support them . . . etc.
Joe Biden may very well vanquish this strain of the party from a purely electoral point of view. But, as the frontrunner, it is incumbent on him to refute it morally as well as politically. Of course he will not do so—he will ally himself to it, profit by it, and attempt to subordinate it to his own ambitions. Biden is not a very bright man, but he is smart enough to realize that anybody who is not living in Delaware, or was not living in 1991, knows his name for one reason and one reason only: In 2008, the Democrats thought they needed a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency unobjectionable old white man on the ticket. Biden presented them with a brain free of contour and a soul infinitely plastic. If he had a single patriotic bone in his body or an ounce of courage in his soul, he would speak to the shift in his party.
But who said that every idiot had to be useful?