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OPINION

Will Donald Trump go the way of Paul LePage?

Given the stakes, it’s understandable that a lot of us are worried Trump might somehow be elected president again. But I’m not worried.

Former Maine governor Paul LePage spoke at a campaign rally held by Eric Trump, son of Donald Trump, Sept. 17, 2020, in Saco, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”

That was my former mayor and governor, Paul R. LePage, puckering up for some tactical (and ultimately unrequited) butt-kissing of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016.

Back then, many of us in Maine tried to warn the rest of the country how easily Trump could go from a punch line to a winner, as LePage had in Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial race — shocking all those who’d written him off.

LePage wasn’t wrong to equate himself with Trump. Though they came from different backgrounds, they utilized the same slender, populist playbook for that portion of the electorate who think hollering is somehow synonymous with telling the truth. Through a combination of temperament and timing, LePage was able to stomp his way to the governorship, drawing up the blueprint for Trump in the process.

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LePage proceeded to chew up the Maine landscape for eight years, palling around with conspiracy theorists, challenging state lawmakers to pistol duels (no, really), and vetoing more bills than his immediate 23 predecessors combined. To call his governing style incoherent would be generous, but LePage never pretended to be anything other than what he is.

In 2018, by Maine law, he was termed out for a cycle and moved to income tax-free Florida in a huff. Janet Mills, the attorney general who had clashed regularly with LePage, became Maine’s first female governor just in time to take on the challenge of COVID-19. And she did something that seemed, after eight years of LePage, practically revelatory: She actually led.

Mills apprehended problems, took the counsel of experts, and put her best people in a position to do their jobs. Crucially, when a policy or decision proved not to work, she admitted as much and changed tack. Two years later, Maine was among the states that had fared best in the pandemic, according to a host of metrics.

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Never one to allow reality to interfere with his belief that everyone but him does everything wrong, LePage returned from the Sunshine State in 2022 to challenge Mills. But Mainers had largely moved on. Mills was reelected in a landslide.

Which brings us back around to Trump.

Given the stakes, and given the way in which Trump has thus far avoided anything resembling comeuppance — political or legal or karmic — for his many transgressions, it’s understandable that a lot of people are worried he might be elected president again. But I’m not worried, and here’s why: When I look at those who gather for Trump’s recent legal fund-raising political rallies, I see the same things I saw at LePage rallies in 2022. The energy is low. The conviction is gone. There’s little of the truly ugly anima of 2016, just a bunch of sad people going through the motions, looking for something they sense, but cannot admit, is no longer there.

The conversations about the prospect of another Trump presidency echo the conversations we were having in 2022 about the possibility of LePage once again taking the governor’s mansion. And yet, there was no mistaking the fact that something felt different this time. Something unquantifiable yet palpable.

It turned out that there was something at work, in people who had previously been supporters of LePage, that didn’t show up in polling — they were tired. Tired of the ceaseless drama. Tired of existing in a cortisol-drenched cycle of conflict and aimless fury. Tired, ultimately, of having to hear and see and talk about nothing but him.

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Like the country as a whole since 2020, Maine had gotten a refresher course in how the chief executive is supposed to function: quietly, competently, and mostly out of sight. Plenty of people disliked Mills — but if they didn’t vote for her, they also didn’t rally against her and get behind LePage.

Perhaps more shocking than anything LePage did or said during his decade-plus in the political limelight was how that run ended: quietly. On election night 2022, only a couple dozen people showed up at LePage’s watch party. Most of them split once LePage admitted the obvious — that he was going to lose, and lose big. It was over, and emphatically so.

If it’s true that LePage was Trump before Trump, then it seems likely Trump will go, in the end, the way of LePage. There will be an ungodly amount of noise before then, of course. The thing to remember is that when an idol’s time is up, true zealots agitate ever more fiercely, making themselves appear more numerous and influential than they are. But the rest of the people who once pulled the lever for Trump will largely slip away, as they did with LePage.

Trump may or may not be convicted, and he may or may not be pardoned, but Maine’s recent history indicates most of that will, with regard to the election at least, end up being beside the point. Because when even your own people are exhausted with the bombast and the bluster — when the thrill of incivility is gone, but incivility is all you ever had to sell — there’s nowhere left to go, except away.

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Ron Currie, the author of four novels, lives in Maine.