Why Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage Is the Proto-Trump

They have both succeeded on a mix of bullying, racism, and a white middle-class fears. 

Paul LePage.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 13, 2015.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In Maine, the face of heroin trafficking is white. Which makes sense. Maine is among the most homogeneous states in the union, and the large bulk of Maine’s drug users, drug dealers, and drug addicts are white. But don’t tell that to Paul LePage, the state’s Republican governor, who sees a different racial culprit for the influx of drugs into Maine.

“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty—these types of guys—they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” said LePage at a town hall meeting on Wednesday night.

It’s possible for “D-Money” to stand for a hypothetical white drug dealer. But that falls apart when you get to the next part of LePage’s statement. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”

The governor didn’t elaborate on what those other “issues” are.

As soon as this hit national media on Thursday night, representatives for LePage tried to limit the damage. “The governor is not making comments about race. Race is irrelevant,” said Peter Steele, his communications director, in a statement to the press. “What is relevant is the cost to state taxpayers for welfare and the emotional costs for these kids who are born as a result of involvement with drug traffickers. His heart goes out to these kids because he had a difficult childhood, too. We need to stop the drug traffickers from coming into our state.”

On Friday, facing further criticism, LePage held a news conference to discuss and defend his comments. “I spent an hour and 15 minutes talking to the people in Richmond the other night about some of the problems in Maine,” LePage said. “In that whole time, many of you were there, that whole time, I made one slip-up, I made one word of slip-up. I may have made many slip-ups. I was going impromptu, and my brain didn’t catch up to my mouth.” He continued: “If I slipped up and used the wrong word, I apologize to all the Maine women.” And when asked if he would apologize to Maine’s black community, LePage said, “I never said anything about white or black on traffickers.”

For the LePage administration, this controversy is par for the course. Elected in 2010 with just under 38 percent of the vote in a five-way contest for the governorship, he won re-election in 2014 despite low approval ratings and a pattern of inflammatory—and sometimes vulgar—rhetoric (helped along by a divided opposition). Indeed, if LePage has a national profile, it’s defined by those comments, from his campaign promise that, “As your governor, you’re gonna be seeing a lot of me on the front page saying ‘Gov. LePage tells Obama to go to hell,’ ” to his attacks on rivals—“Sen. Jackson claims to be for the people, but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”

How, then, has LePage survived—and even thrived—as governor of a famously moderate state? By harnessing the resentment of Maine’s rural middle class, which is angry about welfare.

When we talk about the decline of the white working class—and in particular, the dramatic spike in alcoholism, addiction, and premature death among young and middle-aged working-class white men—we’re talking about states such as Maine, where slow growth and isolation have bred struggling towns where many rely on public assistance. These people—as we’ve seen in West Virginia and similar parts of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and other states—don’t vote. And to that point, 55 percent of nonvoters are white, 51 percent are men, 54 percent are between 30 and 64 years old, and 46 percent make less than $30,000 a year. They are estranged from the political system.

The people who vote are their immediate peers, the teachers, police officers, small business owners, and city employees who hold the closest thing to middle-class jobs in these depressed areas. And they vote for Republicans. Not because they’re somehow distracted by social issues, but because—as Alec MacGillis argues for the New York Times—they see assistance going to the “undeserving benefit-recipients who live nearby.”

They are angry that a neighbor collects disability when he can work, or that a young family member uses drugs and food stamps. Here’s MacGillis, again, quoting a Democratic political consultant in Kentucky:

“It’s Cousin Bobby—‘he’s on Oxy and he’s on the draw and we’re paying for him,’ ” Mr. Cauley said. “If you need help, no one begrudges you taking the program—they’re good-hearted people. It’s when you’re able-bodied and making choices not to be able-bodied.”

LePage understands this. And as governor he’s had one message: I will end welfare abuse and take benefits from those who don’t deserve them. “Maine will no longer be considered a welfare destination state,” boasts the governor’s office.

Under LePage’s administration, Maine has placed a five-year limit on welfare benefits, launched new investigations of welfare fraud, and balked at new anti-poverty programs, such as the Medicaid expansion. When attacked, he defends himself with his biography—LePage grew up impoverished and abused—and by asserting his compassion. “I care for the poor,” he said at a town hall last October. “I am the one willing to work with the poor, and have a safety net we can all depend on and make people understand that nothing in life is free. You have to get back to society.” And when his language gets ahead of him—as we’ve seen with his D-Money comment—he brushes it off and moves along.

In a real sense, everything about LePage—his persona as a self-made man, his sometimes-racist rhetoric, his often bullying demeanor—presages Donald Trump’s campaign for president. And both are fueled by a similar stew of resentments and anxieties.

As political creatures, LePage and Trump come from a common place. And the conditions that created them—economic disadvantage and rapid social change—are ongoing. Regardless of them, those forces are with us. Which is to say that if LePage and Trump are a type, then—now or in the near future—we should expect to see more in their mold.