Opinion

Opinion | Michael J. Socolow

Paul LePage: Dickens, with a dash of King

Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference at the State House in January, where he apologized for his remark about out-of-state drug dealers impregnating "young white" girls.
AP
Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference at the State House in January, where he apologized for his remark about out-of-state drug dealers impregnating "young white" girls.

Maine has rarely been in step with the rest of the United States. It’s the only state sharing a border with but one of its brethren, and its many links to the Canadian Maritimes often align it more closely to its Acadian cousins than its fellow members of the Union.

Maine also has a proud, and stubborn, Republican tradition. Even in 1936, when all but Vermont wanted to return Roosevelt to the White House, Maine stood with Alf Landon. Margaret Chase Smith was one of the first Republicans to publicly criticize Joe McCarthy, and it was a young Bill Cohen who heroically challenged President Nixon during Watergate. Even more recently, in 2012, the Republican caucuses went to Ron Paul, whose libertarian virtues matched the independence of Maine’s most committed Republican activists.

Maine is the land of taciturn Titus Moody and classic, laconic Yankee humor (“You can’t get they-ah from hee-ay”). This is the Eastern Frontier, where potatoes emerge from the barren dirty soil in the late summer and strands of pine and birch catch the fading sunlight at 3:30pm on cold December afternoons. Maine is gothic in all its romantic glory, from its rocky forbidding coastline to its isolated lumber camps hard by the Quebec border. No wonder Stephen King sets so many of his horror stories up here. This place can drive you insane.

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And that’s probably why our current Governor retains some popularity. Those baffled by the support enjoyed by a political figure known for intemperate rantings, bizarre outbursts, and overt racism simply don’t comprehend Maine. You must imagine LePage not as a typical American bully, but as the cross between a Charles Dickens and Stephen King character.

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He’s Dickensian in that he grew up on the streets of Lewiston, Maine, after fleeing an abusive home terrorized by an alcoholic father. The eldest of eighteen children, he could never shake the feeling of being an outsider due to his Franco-American heritage. Despite graduating from college and compiling a respectable record as a local businessman, the grudges from this tragic childhood have neither dissipated nor been ameliorated. That’s one reason why, upon hearing the (inaccurate) rumor that a Democratic legislator called him a racist, the Governor left an obscene and belligerent recorded message for his political rival.

He deeply believes he’s suffered from racism in his life, and it’s why this specific charge detonated yet another of the Governor’s explosive outbursts. His temper remains intertwined with his pride in being from the streets, and when criticized he’ll occasionally blame his Quebecois lineage. It is this Gallic tradition, he claims, that animates the outbursts and his inability to control his tongue. To paraphrase his argument, Franco-Americans are passionate and honest, which paradoxically is both a virtue and a vice.

That’s the Dickens version. But the Stephen King edition of LePage takes this narrative of surmounting impossible odds and adds inner demons straight from Freud. LePage is consumed by his rage, and its eating him from the inside out. His lack of sympathy for the poor, for example, is evidence of this nightmare. Rather than simply being penurious in the New England tradition, he’s campaigned against the single mothers on welfare and homeless families he sees as parasitic to society. He is provincial and myopic, willing to attack anybody “from away” — undocumented immigrants, visitors from Lawrence, Lowell, and Waterbury, Conn. — that he views as parasitic to his community.

The obvious irony is that Governor LePage in the Blaine House would cut the assistance that the young, orphaned Paul LePage needed to survive. Governor LePage even admits this, noting in interviews that without the help he got, he’d most likely have been imprisoned (like a few of his siblings).

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I’m not from Maine. I’m “from away,” as they say up here, and I must say it’s fascinating to watch this drama play out. Governor LePage’s voice represents a large percentage of the population feeling disenfranchised, attacked, and abandoned. The shoe factories are closed — sent first to Mexico, and now China — and the lumber and paper mills continue to shut down. All those excellent manufacturing jobs that once sustained good middle-class lives are now disappearing into memory’s void. Maine is acting attacked, frightened and protective, and Governor LePage effectively channels these fears and frustrations.

One senses — as the legislature now seriously considers impeaching LePage — that we’re reaching a climax in this Shakespearean drama. Only time will tell if this story ends with a Dickens twist or a King bloodbath.

An earlier version of this story misidentified the winner of the state of Maine in the 1936 presidential election.

Michael J. Socolow is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine.