Early in the 15-year run of “American Idol,” commentator Tony Kornheiser asked a crucial question about the show’s host, Ryan Seacrest.

“Is he an idiot?” Kornheiser wondered. “Or is he a genius pretending to be an idiot?”

That’s the same question I have about Paul LePage, and I go back and forth. Right now I’m going with “genius,” as long as we can add “evil” to the title.

LePage’s bizarre rant last weekend at the Republican state convention about hard-to-understand foreign workers is worth a second look.

“You already have restaurants in the summer, if you go on the coast, it’s hard to hear what they’re saying. Do you ever try to say ‘What’s the special of the day?’ to someone from Bulgaria?” LePage said. “And the worst ones if they’re from India. I mean, they’re all lovely people, but it takes ’em … you’re going to have an interpreter.”

On one hand, it’s classic LePage – a mean joke that flouts prissy rules of political correctness. Nothing more than an attempt to amuse a room full of native-born white people by making fun of foreigners, especially those with brown skin. It’s just a joke, his supporters say, get over it.

But it’s important to remember what he was talking about when he made this apparently unscripted detour.

It was the minimum wage.

And if anyone wonders how LePage is going to fight the minimum-wage referendum, which is probably going to be on the November ballot, we just got a preview: The minimum wage is for foreigners, and all it will do is take money out of the pockets of good, hardworking Americans like you and give it to people who can’t even speak our language.

I know, it doesn’t make any sense. Maine is 96.3 percent native-born, so how is the other 3.7 percent going to swallow up a big share of anything?

And besides, Maine’s population is aging quickly. Why would someone who is responsible for the state’s economy take a position that would discourage foreign-born people from coming here to work? Don’t we need them?

But if you have to ask those questions, you haven’t been paying much attention to Gov. LePage. This is how he operates. LePage has been going after immigrants since he came to office, not because Maine has a problem with too much immigration, but because we have so little. There are so few foreign-born people in the state, he can turn them into any scary demon he needs. He has made a career out of beating up on the weak.

Remember his 2014 campaign ad, the one that juxtaposed images of worried-looking white people with scenes of shadowy figures walking across a desert, wading a stream and then standing in what looked like a underground tunnel? The unspoken message was clear: If Mike Michaud gets elected, immigrants will be coming out of Maine sewers to get welfare.

Then LePage followed that up with his oft-repeated false statement that asylum seekers are bringing diseases to Maine.

With no evidence or logic, he repeatedly blamed an uptick in HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and tuberculosis on immigrants, without noting that those blood-borne diseases are spread by the use of dirty hypodermic needles, which are used almost exclusively by good old Mainers. He even accused immigrants of putting us at risk by introducing the “ziki fly,” a bug that exists only in his imagination.

He does it all the time and it works. Instead of holding LePage accountable for Maine’s lousy economy, even people on welfare are blaming welfare for the lack of good jobs.

Raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 is projected to help nearly 160,000 workers, about a quarter of Maine’s workforce, not just the relatively few people who are currently earning the $7.50 minimum. But watch LePage’s rhetoric turn it into a windfall for a few immigrants.

A campaign strategist once told me that he could win a referendum election by telling voters that a measure would help others, but that it’s much better when you can tell voters it would help them directly. And the absolute best is being able to tell people they have to vote your way or someone else will come along and take what’s theirs.

And this has been LePage’s genius, if you want to call it that, since coming to office in 2011. He can always point to the outsider who is taking food off the table of hardworking Maine families, and put himself in the role of their defender.

LePage may find foreigners hard to understand, but some of us are getting better at reading him. And even without his name on the ballot, there is no telling how ugly he will be able to make this campaign.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @gregkesich

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