View From Glen Hill: The Stasi, Russia and our Presidency

Professor Anthony Glees’ book of a dozen years ago, The Stasi Files, chronicles the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police and espionage force.  He and other scholars reviewed the Stasi’s files right after they were declassified following reunification and before their reclassification several years later in the interests of German unity. They reveal in stark detail the enormous proportions of East Germany’s police state.  

In addition to its very sophisticated espionage operations around the world and its brutal repression activities at home, the Stasi also had as its mandate disguising the ruthless oppression of the East German people especially through the identification and cultivation of well-placed advocates in the West. The Soviet Union inflicted repression at least as brutal as the Stasi’s, but its secret police files have remained closed to public scrutiny, unlike the Stasi’s.

Responding to the Stasi threat and even more significantly to the Soviet one — heightened as it was by the Soviets’ enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons — was not easy. In fact, from the perspective of the 1960s and ’70s, that threat looked impossible to eliminate. Then came President Reagan. Calling the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” and certainly not terming its leaders “brilliant,” Reagan’s vision was to bankrupt the Soviet Union and its satellites while at the same time pushing for positive reforms within the Soviet bloc. And, in fact, his “Star Wars” missile defense program (fraught though it was with daunting technological problems) as well as his other military initiatives truly panicked the Soviets into upping their own military spending far beyond what their nation could sustain. The result was the amazingly sudden demise of the entire Soviet bloc.

President Reagan knew how to balance pressure and conciliation. He kept around him outstanding strategic thinkers with much experience in the international arena. He acted in sometimes dramatic ways but with consistency in objective and carefully considered policy goals. He also knew how to reach across the aisle domestically, and his speeches reflected the great substance of his character. While not perfect by any means, and with a social program that lagged far behind his successes internationally, the fact is he was presidential in demeanor, in thinking, and in long-range planning.  

Now flash forward a quarter century: Putin is right now retooling a Stasi-worthy police state in Russia, yet Donald Trump and he oddly profess to be mutual admirers.  

In this column in March, I questioned whether Trump is a sociopath — a person for whom the only thing that matters is winning as he perceives victory for himself and without regard to the consequences for others. I referenced in that column the 2009 book by Harvard psychologist Martha Stout, Ph.D., The Sociopath Next Door. Her examples of actual clinical cases fit tellingly well what we’ve been seeing from Trump week after depressing week.

Consider but one example: Trump’s attacks on the judge hearing the civil fraud case against Trump and others involving Trump University. Trump’s own lawyers had never moved for this judge’s recusal. Yet Trump still attacked him on the both incorrect and racist grounds of being Mexican (later amended to “of Mexican heritage”), claiming he could never get a fair hearing before this judge because “I’m building the wall.”

Yet Trump was attacking a judge who had a stellar record as a prosecutor of drug lords even when his life was threatened to such an extent as to require government protection, who was selected for appointment to the California state court by a Republican governor, and who was confirmed by voice vote to the federal judiciary at a time when most federal judicial appointments faced logjams.  

What person running for the Presidency would raise into sharp focus in national dialogue a patently idiotic claim concerning a judge in a private lawsuit, a claim that was sure to provoke, as it did, not just attacks from the Democratic side but also from Republican ranks far and wide?  

Trump’s not dumb. So, why did he do it? Because this lawsuit was foremost in his mind as one where he felt he was losing. Therefore, he had to lash out no matter how destructive, including self-destructive, that lashing out was. Such conduct fits the classic profile of a sociopath, one for whom winning in personal terms, including in utter disregard of basic common sense not to mention concern for others, matters more than anything else.

So I reiterate the focus of my March column: we need a national dialogue on fitness of sociopaths for Presidency.