June 26, 2013

Greg Kesich: Outburst confirms the paranoid politics of Paul LePage

The governor belongs to a political tradition of hard-liners who will never find a way to compromise.

"Listen, damn it! That comment is not politically correct. But we got to understand who this man is: This man is a bad person. He doesn't only have no brains, he has a black heart and so does the leadership upstairs. They really don't care for the elderly, they don't care for the kids at risk, they don't care for cognitive disabilities ... And it's so frustrating when you put yourself out there and you want to help people and they don't want to. To them it's a game."

– Gov. Paul LePage on Sen. Troy Jackson and members of the Democratic leadership, Maine State House, June 20, 2013

 

The best thing ever written about Gov. LePage was published in 1955, when the future Maine governor was about 7 years old. That was when the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter wrote the first of a group of essays that came to be known as "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" when they were published in book form a decade later.

Hofstadter did not mention the governor by name -- he was a genius, not a prophet -- but he didn't miss much else about the future chief executive.

As we all know by now, Gov. LePage unleashed an outburst in a State House hallway last week that will be remembered as long as we have YouTube because of a crass sexual reference he made about Sen. Troy Jackson and the senator's alleged failure to use Vaseline. It was probably meant as a joke, but what Le-Page said right after it (quoted above) was no joke and may be the most revealing comment any Maine politician has ever made.

The Vaseline line tells us the governor doesn't have a great sense of humor. His impassioned defense of the line -- saying he is constantly frustrated when he tries to "help people" by enemies who think it's all "a game" -- tells us how he sees the world.

Hofstadter called it "the paranoid style" of politics, and even though he was writing more than half a century ago, he might as well have been standing in the State House last week taking notes.

Hofstadter identified a series of protest movements that go back to the start of the republic and continue through history in multiple forms, from anti-Masonic and anti-immigrant activists before the Civil War, to the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century, the McCarthyite blacklisters in the 1950s and the hard-right John Birch Society of the '60s.

What they all had in common was a belief that their way of life was being destroyed from within by a powerful enemy and that a catastrophe was imminent if people didn't act. ("He constantly lives at a turning point," Hofstadter wrote. "Time is forever just running out.") And while they often use the language of conservatism, there is very little about the country as it actually exists that the paranoid politician thinks worth saving.

"Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil ... (n)othing but complete victory will do," he wrote. "This demand for unqualified victory leads to the formulation of hopelessly demanding and unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid's frustrations. Even partial success leaves him with the same sense of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness for the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes."

By some standards, Le- Page has been a success in his two-plus years in office. Under his watch, the state resolved a pension crisis, gave the health insurance industry more flexibility to set premiums, and cut income tax rates, all key campaign promises.

He also cut thousands of people off government-supported services and made modest reforms in education, including the creation of the state's first three charter schools.

But that's not enough if you are fighting evil. LePage wanted to cripple labor unions, eliminate the income tax, slash social welfare spending and overturn decades of environmental regulations. That's the kind of change needed to move Maine from 50th place -- he often repeats -- the worst state in the country to do business. He's trying to help people and anyone who disagrees with him has a "black heart."

That fight is really not about issues. People can compromise over issues, but they can't when they are fighting against evil. And with the cameras rolling, Gov. LePage made it clear that there was no one in Augusta he was willing to split the difference with.

LePage is apparently convinced that he is the only one in Augusta who really cares. When the Legislature reconvenes today to vote on his vetoes, he may find that a lonely place to be.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at gkesich@pressherald.com

 

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