Bernie Sanders Campaigned in a Yugo, Is Incredibly Weird

Bernie Sanders in a tight whip / Andrew Kugle
June 15, 2016

An anecdote in an article published Monday in the New York Times Fashion and Style section tells readers an awful lot about the fashion and style of Bernie Sanders, the insurgent candidate who has captured 43 percent of the vote in Democratic Party primaries.

Twenty-eight years ago, [Sanders campaign manager] Jeff Weaver was a lowly campaign aide driving an obscure left-wing congressional candidate [Sanders] around Vermont in a Yugo.

"In a Yugo." As in, the super-compact, super-crappy Yugo GV, a car that was built by state-owned Zastava Motors in the communist country of Yugoslavia. The Yugo was a flop when it was introduced to U.S. markets in 1985. The car broke down all the time—enough that it remains the ultimate punch line about automotive failure. Apparently, Weaver and Sanders stumped across Vermont in one of those babies. This fact should surprise absolutely no one.

It should surprise no one because Sanders’ political history is littered with weirdness, most of which involved romanticizing America’s Cold War enemies in one way or another.

He honeymooned in the Soviet Union

You’re heard this one before, but the details are nuts. In 1988, not long after The Nation sponsored its "peace cruise" down the Volga, Mr. and Mrs. Bernie Sanders honeymooned at Yaroslavl in the Soviet Union.

Yaroslavl is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its beautiful churches (all built before the Russian Revolution of 1917, needless to say). Communism transformed the city into a depressed industrial zone. Four months before the Sanders’ visit, a freight train derailed in Yaroslavl, spilling a ton of toxic rocket propellant in the city’s industrial and tourism sector. The derailment led to a mass evacuation and the hospitalization of 34 rescue workers.

The Sanders’ trip to lovely Yaroslavl married business with pleasure. Bernie, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, was also leading a diplomatic junket as part of a sister-city program, a relationship he had forged.

Sanders told local media he hoped America would adopt the strengths of the Soviet system—and vice-versa, of course.

"We were there to say yeah, we have problems, you have problems. There are strengths to your [communist] system, there are strengths to our system," Sanders told media after the trip. "Our goal was to say let’s take the strengths of both systems."

Sanders admitted that health care and housing sucked in the Soviet Union, but he pointed out that hey, at least they were affordable. He said he was impressed by a visit to the Moscow subway, where the trains ran on time.

"It was the cleanest, most effective mass transit system I’ve ever seen in my life. … The stations were absolutely beautiful including many works of art, chandeliers that were beautiful," he said.

Sanders also said he was encouraged by Russians who wanted to rekindle the spirit of revolution.

"I was very impressed by their desire to become a democratic society and to move forward into some of the early visions of their revolution, what their revolution was about in 1917," Sanders said. "They understand they have had in many ways a dismal history since then, but they want to move back to some of their early visions, and we wish them well in that."

To clarify terms, Sanders defined "democracy" in those days as "public ownership of the major means of production," a definition that fit his public calls for the nationalization of the oil and telecommunications industries and the seizure of the Rockefeller fortune (yes, really).

He wanted to meet Fidel Castro, but that didn’t work out 🙁

From Outsider in the House, Sanders’ 1998 memoir:

Jane and I visited Cuba in 1989. I had hoped to meet with Castro, but that didn’t work out. I did meet with the mayor of Havana and other officials.

Sanders had good things to say about the island nation and parking lot for the Soviet military. "The people we met had an almost religious affection for [Fidel Castro]. The revolution there is far deep and more profound than I understood it to be," Sanders said, according to Michael Moynihan.

Later in the book, Sanders’ chafed while recounting how one of his political opponents paired an image of him with an image of Castro. "He red-baited me," Sanders wrote.

He was a big fan of the communist government of Nicaragua

In 1985, Mayor Sanders took a trip south to Nicaragua to pal around with the communist Sandinista government and denounce U.S. support for the contras.

Sanders was the highest-ranking American official who had visited the communist regime, and he joined a delegation of American leftists and officials from mostly communist countries to celebrate the anniversary of Nicaragua’s revolution.

Here’s how Yahoo News describes one event the delegation attended:

Sanders was in a crowd estimated at a half million people, many of whom were clad in the Sandinistas’ trademark red-and-black colors and chanting "Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die."

Onstage, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused the U.S. government of "state terrorism" for supporting the rebels who were seeking to overthrow him.

Sanders struck a similar tone when he returned to the United States, referring to his country as an imperialist power that was crushing a democratic (see the definition above) movement.

"What he [Ronald Reagan] has said is that we in the United States are strong and powerful and we can destroy you anytime we want. And all you have to do is get down on your hands and knees or we will send in Rambo and Sylvester Stallone," Sanders said during an impassioned speech.

He warned that Reagan’s meddling could push Nicaragua into an alliance with the Soviet Union against its wishes.

"He may be successful in driving Nicaragua into the arms of the Soviet Union. If he tries to destroy that nation, he may bring about the impossible: make it into a rigid communist country aligned with the Soviet Union," Sanders said.

This curious prediction ignored crucial facts on the ground: namely, that Nicaragua was already aligned with the Soviet Union, and had been for years. The Soviet Union was spending billions to support communist regimes in the United States’s backyard. The Sandinista military was equipped with "Soviet-made tanks, armored vehicles, howitzers, rockets, anti-tank guns, mortars, and an assortment of vehicles," including attack helicopters. The USSR lavished an estimated $150 million per year in military aid on Nicaragua in 1984, the year before Sanders visited; in 1986, the USSR stationed 100 military advisers in the country.

Sanders’ tour guides probably didn’t take him to the military installations.

He described members of the Sandinista leadership variously as "impressive," "gentle," "very loving," "reminds you of a hippie." Because Sanders is a walking cliché, he recounted how Culture Minister Ernesto Cardenal was "proud of the fact that they’re now teaching poetry not only to the peasants but in the military." (The Sandinistas had a tradition not only of promoting regime-friendly poetry but of blowing up journalists and shutting down opposition newspapers and Catholic radio. Sanders defended the Sandinistas’ press censorship as a wartime measure.)

Bottom line: "I was impressed. Now obviously I will be attacked by every editorial writer in the [Burlington Free Press] for being a dumb dupe," Sanders said. "Maybe I am."

He wanted to abolish the CIA

But of course.

Published under: Bernie Sanders