Posted on June 1, 2022

Paul LePage Is Back!

Sasha Abramsky, The Nation, May 31, 2022

On a cloudy spring morning, Maine’s ex-governor, 73-year-old Paul LePage, journeyed to the heart of his state’s largest, most diverse, and most progressive city to preside over the opening of a new Multicultural Community Center. Wearing a lavender shirt and slacks, LePage wooed liberal Mainers, declaring that he wanted to make Maine “inclusive to all new citizens,” that he loved talking to immigrants about the countries they came from, and that he hoped his state would roll out the welcome mat and tell new arrivals “We love you.”

There was a surreal quality to the speech, given the many anti-immigrant comments LePage had made during his eight years as a far-right Tea Party–affiliated Republican governor, from January 2011 until 2019. This is the man who, in his two terms in office, fired up his base by telling them that the country was at war against immigrants—especially Hispanic immigrants and, more generally, immigrants of color—and that in a war you shoot first and ask questions later. At the height of the panic about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, the governor announced that asylum seekers were bringing the “ziki fly” with them. Though LePage grew up in the historically oppressed French-speaking community of Maine, he failed to acquire any empathy for the underdog as a result. Instead, he became a major supporter of Donald Trump’s campaign promise of a border wall, his subsequent assault on immigrants’ rights, and his proposed travel ban aimed at Muslim immigrants and visitors.

Now, in 2022, LePage is running for governor again. In his effort to return to the office he vacated in 2019, he’s trying to soften his image on issues like immigration to appeal to a broader audience. {snip}

It’s easy to do a recitation of LePage’s greatest hits, and not just on immigration: He declared that drug dealers, who he had at one point averred were Black and brown and coming up from New York to plunge white Mainers into addiction, should be beheaded. He refused to attend a breakfast commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and then told a reporter who asked about it that the NAACP could “kiss my butt.” He challenged Democratic politician Drew Gattine to a duel, called him a “cocksucker,” and said he would shoot him between the eyes after Gattine allegedly called him a racist. He gratuitously vetoed legislation banning conversion therapy for gay Mainers—legislation pushed by Democratic Representative Ryan Fecteau, who would go on to become the youngest state House speaker in the country—even though the bill had won support from Republicans in the senate and similar bills had been signed by his fellow Republican governors in New Hampshire and New Jersey.


In 2016, after endorsing Trump for president, the controversy-courting LePage boasted that he was “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.” It was a bombastic statement, but in spite of their dissimilar origins, there was more than a kernel of truth in it. Unlike Trump, LePage grew up in extreme poverty, as one of 18 children in an abusive, alcoholic household, and ended up homeless during his teenage years in the early 1960s. But he went from rags to riches, making a fortune as a businessman running a company called Marden’s Surplus & Salvage, and relied heavily on his life story, as well as his salty persona, in crafting his appeal when he eventually made the leap into electoral politics.

This time around, however, LePage—who won his 2010 and 2014 races when the field included a credible independent candidate, meaning he needed only a plurality of the vote to win—is going mano a mano against an incumbent Democratic governor, Janet Mills. Eliot Cutler, a former attorney who served as the spoiler candidate in 2010 and 2014, was recently arrested on child pornography charges, and no one else of note has filed paperwork to enter the race. If LePage—already the de facto GOP nominee, with endorsements from the state party and Senator Susan Collins—wants to win in the general election, he needs to appeal to a significant number of moderates and younger voters. There are, potentially, voters who don’t share his xenophobia but are nevertheless ripe for plucking from the Democratic coalition, given their anxiety about the state of the economy. Cue his shameless pivot on how to treat, and talk about, immigrants.

Yet LePage needs to pull off this maneuver without alienating his hard-right base, the Mainers who don’t always vote—or always vote Republican—but who flocked to LePage because he refused to temper his language and didn’t tone down his distaste for outsiders. Hence his continued embrace of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” lies about the 2020 election, as well as his revival of a preposterous scapegoating claim, seemingly drawn from thin air, that people took buses from Massachusetts to Maine to illegally vote in the gay-marriage legalization referendum in 2012.

If LePage can perform this trick successfully in 2022, it’s entirely possible that this will become the road map used by other verbal-bomb-throwing demagogues—even Trump himself—to take back power on the national stage come 2024. But if he loses—if he once more fails to break through the 50 percent threshold—it will show the limits of demagoguery, as well as the power of collective memory in rallying voters to reject a return to governance based on scapegoating and the deliberate stirring of destructive chaos.


Lepage’s appeal is similar to that of Trump, or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, or, say, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. To his fans, LePage is a tell-it-like-it-is straight shooter, a man who speaks from the heart and sticks it to the liberal elites with their thin skins and their 24-hour-a-day readiness to be triggered by crude comments. He doesn’t let the so-called experts dictate policy or allow outsiders—those “from away,” as Mainers describe them—to determine what local political priorities should be.

In the mill towns and hamlets of the north, a marvelous landscape of frozen lakes and Impressionist-like reflections of sky and clouds in the rivers, LePage’s persona is widely appreciated. In places like Millinocket—a small town along the banks of a tributary of the West Branch Penobscot River, the glory days of which are decades in the past—many of the run-down wooden houses sport Trump flags in their yards and LePage posters in their windows. It’s not uncommon to see “Fuck Mills” bumper stickers on the cars parked outside.

On Central Street, just inside the Millinocket town limits, is American Legion Post 80, complete with a helicopter and tank outside and a basement bar inside. For 49-year-old Joseph Batchelder, who books entertainment at the post, LePage is a breath of fresh air. And he makes Batchelder feel that his part of the state isn’t just some backwater, that it actually matters. “He’s straight-up, right to the point. When he gets stuff done, he gets stuff done. Any improvement to the state, it’s always to the southern part. LePage did the northern part. I’d rather see him than that other woman [Mills]. Everything she’s done has been backwards.” (In reality, according to data provided by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, despite LePage’s rhetoric about helping down-at-the-heels northern mill towns, the economic growth during his two terms in office was overwhelmingly concentrated in the cities of the south; from 2007 to 2014, a period that included most of LePage’s first term, rural Maine saw a period of economic contraction.)

Batchelder, who says he has contracted Covid twice—the first time made him feel like he had a combination of asthma, pneumonia, and pleurisy—isn’t vaccinated. He doesn’t appreciate Mills’s imposition of mask mandates and her efforts to make vaccines compulsory for some parts of the workforce, and he supports LePage in his opposition to mandates. “A lot of us don’t believe in the vaccines,” he says. “A lot of people with vaccines are still getting sick. I believe it’s a big money game. I believe Covid’s real, but they make it more scarier than it is.”

LePage’s life story resonates with people like Batchelder, the people who feel routinely ignored and humiliated. The ex-governor came of age in gritty industrial Lewiston, in central Maine. It is a place dominated by large brick riverfront factories and warehouses, with imposing churches whose copper steeples have turned green with age and low-end department and grocery stores. While many Maine towns exude an old-world charm, Lewiston’s architecture is brutalist and functional. It was on these streets that the young LePage lived for several years, after he fled his violent family home.


As the spring melts the long winter’s snow and gradually breaks up the lake ice, LePage is traversing the state with his tax-cutting, anti-mandate, anti-welfare, anti-regulatory agenda. He is seeking to capitalize on a broad, inchoate sense of anomie, to pick up support in places that previously shunned him. To do so, he’s been willing to moderate his image on immigration and other key issues, even as he doubles down on his tax policies, his anti-regulatory stances, and his embrace of election conspiracy theories. “I can honestly say he has softened,” Hanington assures me. Then he pauses and backtracks slightly. “But he is not weak. It’s the same beat of the drum, but he has learned to tone it down.”