AUGUSTA — As Joshua Rothman read Gov. Paul LePage’s statements about drug dealers impregnating “young white” girls Thursday night, the University of Alabama professor heard echoes of rhetoric and racial stereotypes all too common in American history.

“The idea that black men are coming to take advantage of white women is something that goes back to slavery … and it is a dangerous one,” said Rothman, who specializes in slavery and racial history at a university where one of the pivotal moments in integration of schools in the South played out.

While LePage sought to explain away the statement as a slip-up, not a racial statement, Rothman and other political observers say such incidents – whether by LePage, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump or others – and the divergent public reaction to them are signs of how racial language has changed as American politics becomes more polarized.

“It used to be people would say things that were crazy – almost explicitly racist – and they’d be done,” Rothman said. “And that doesn’t happen anymore. If anything, it makes them stronger.”

Trump’s dominance in the polls on the national stage has surprised many people – including national Republican leaders – given his penchant for bombastic comments, whether about banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. or claims that killers and rapists are crossing the southern border from Mexico.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

But in many ways, Trump is following the same path that led LePage to the Blaine House by tapping into the deep-seated frustration or, sometimes, fears of more conservative voters. And while politicians may offend some voters with statements viewed as “politically incorrect” or even racist, they hit the mark with other Americans tired of polished politicians and well-rehearsed sound bites.

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who researches the implications of political polarization, said the anti-politically correct rhetoric from politicians such as Trump and LePage has given an outlet to people.

“A lot of people have felt silenced by powerful, elite social norms and so they bit their tongue, but they haven’t changed their minds,” Galston said. “Now, politicians come along that make it acceptable to not only harbor these sentiments but also to articulate them.”

LePage said during a news conference Friday that he wasn’t “smart enough” to deliberately tap old racial tensions about black men and white women and, instead, attempted to turn the equation around by blaming his critics and a Maine media he readily dismisses as biased for drawing that connection.

“I’m not a polished speaker, but I have a heart, I have a heart for Maine and Maine people,” LePage said Friday, later adding, “If you want to make it racist, go right ahead, do whatever you want.”

‘A LOT OF DISENCHANTED PEOPLE’

It’s still unclear how LePage’s statements will play out in Maine. Six years of prior incidents involving the impolitic governor suggest, however, that it will only deepen the divide between LePage lovers and haters in the state, just as Trump’s success to date in the reality-show-like Republican primary campaign is revealing the divide on a national level.

American politics have changed, and few political observers would say for the better. But they say there are legitimate reasons why blunt-talking politicians such as Trump, LePage and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the right – and on the left the self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist” presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont – resonate with some voters.

“There are a lot of disenchanted people in the country,” said Galston. “You have a substantial chunk of the population that has made almost no economic progress in nearly 20 years, and that isn’t the way it was supposed to be in their standpoint.”

Combine that economic stagnation with changing demographics and the fear of terrorism (or, perhaps in Maine’s case, the growing heroin crisis) and Galston said you have a frightening mix that is ripe for the political picking. The blunter the politicians, the more popular they become, he said.

Trump’s poll numbers, for instance, have risen from the mid-teens to the low 20s during the summer to more than 30 percent among Republican voters despite the seemingly nonstop media frenzy and controversies surrounding his campaign, according to polling averages compiled by RealClearPolitics. That is still only 30 percent of the 30 percent of Americans who identify as Republican, however.

LePage had just a 32 percent approval rating and a 55 percent disapproval rating among participants in a Critical Insights poll in October 2015, roughly one year after his re-election. But his base of supporters remains solid, judging by the often-favorable reactions from many who attend his town hall-style meetings around the state, including at last week’s event in Bridgton.

DISDAIN FOR ‘POLITICAL CORRECTNESS’

A citizens group urging lawmakers to impeach LePage collected more than 20,000 signatures as of early last week. His comments on drug dealers are virtually guaranteed to come up if and when the Democratic-controlled House debates an impeachment order as early as this week. But supporters of impeachment were outnumbered by LePage supporters at two competing rallies held outside the State House last week. And even if the impeachment order passed the House – an unlikely scenario, given Democratic leadership’s opposition – it is likely dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Rep. Larry Lockman, an Amherst Republican and close LePage ally, dismissed any suggestions that LePage’s recent comments were racist and predicted on social media that they would only grow his support, especially in rural Maine.

“The LePage haters can’t even organize more than a dozen people for a rent-a-mob event at the Statehouse,” Lockman wrote on Facebook, referring to the outnumbered pro-impeachment rally. “LePage is more popular now than he was on election night.”

For his part, LePage not only hasn’t changed his style since his first run for governor in 2010 but often appears to take pride in his brashness while openly disdaining “political correctness.” Like some other politicians, he has seized on the “politically correct” label – or PC – as a sign of weakness in other politicians and in the media.

Last month, for instance, he or his staff posted a message on Twitter calling the media “foolish” in their interpretation of his giving a book titled “If You’re Riding a Horse and It Dies, Get off” to some Republican state lawmakers.

“The book wasn’t about 1 issue, rather how politicians are distracted by wrong solutions in order to be PC,” read the tweet from the governor’s account.

In June, LePage decorated a fake Christmas tree with plastic pigs and pictures of lawmakers from both parties whom he accused of filling a budget with wasteful spending, or “pork.”

“I might not be politically correct because I choose not to be, but I’m honest,” LePage told reporters.

LEPAGE ‘REWARDED FOR HIS SPEECH’

While his style has alienated some Maine voters, it has only endeared him more to others. LePage’s supporters, like Trump’s, relish his “tell it like it is” philosophy.

For proof, one need only look at the election results: LePage received 76,454 more votes in 2014 during his re-election campaign than he did in 2010.

“The most important thing about Governor LePage is not that he was elected but that he was re-elected,” said Galston, who is an acquaintance of two-time LePage rival Eliot Cutler and advised the No Labels campaign, in which the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, participated. “He paid no penalty and, in fact, was rewarded for his speech and conduct.”

The governor has found himself apologizing – or acknowledging he could have chosen better words – on numerous occasions during his five-plus years in office. Some of those comments have had a racial tinge, or at least were perceived so by his critics.

Gov. Paul LePage

Gov. Paul LePage

Asked in January 2011 about the fact that NAACP leaders were upset that he declined invitations to attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, the governor replied, “Tell them to kiss my butt.” When those comments upset NAACP leaders even more, LePage dismissed the group as a “special interest.”

He also said as a candidate that he would tell President Obama to “go to hell” over fishing regulations and later reportedly said at a private Republican fundraiser in 2013 that the president “hates white people.”

Part of what is going on, both in Maine and nationally, is that the polarization of the political process has coincided with the silo-ization of our political discourse.

Daniel Shea, a professor and director of Colby College’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, said the rise of “news” sources that lean toward one side of the political spectrum – whether talk radio for conservatives, blogs for liberals or each group’s respective cable TV network – has allowed Americans to hear only one side of an issue.

That creates an “echo chamber” that seems to encourage bombastic and vitriolic discourse because, as Shea put it, “when we are exposed to other perspectives we are more likely to check our rhetoric.”

It’s an issue on both sides of the aisle, Shea said. And while polls suggest that Americans want a more civil political culture, the reality is the parties benefit from the polarization.

“On the one hand, it seems Americans are frustrated with nasty and mean politics but, on the other hand, political operatives have found nasty, mean politics can mobilize (voters), it can build campaign coffers and it can fill auditoriums,” Shea said.