Here at The Phoenix, we’ve created this week’s slightly unsettling cover image of a face-swap of Governor Paul LePage and President Donald Trump to illustrate a commonly held perception: they’re basically the same person.
Sure, they come from different backgrounds — Trump from New York real estate, and Franco-American LePage from the Maine paper and lumber industries — but as political leaders, they share many similarities in terms of behavior, values, and proposed policies. Even LePage himself is quoted as saying, ‘I was Donald Trump before he became popular.”
If you’ve been paying any attention to the political arena these past few years, this isn’t news to you. Stories on the budding bromance between the two alongside comparisons of their character traits have popped up before in both local and national media. Long before we learned of the results of the election, we read articles by writers drawing connections between life in Maine under LePage and what a Trump presidency might look like.
So, if birds of a feather flock together, what kind of birds are we dealing with here? We spoke with two of the most publicly outspoken opponents of Paul LePage to see if we can make any predictions on what this first year under President Trump might be like, based on our experiences in Maine under LePage.
Brash, angry and unpredictable
Both Donald Trump and Paul LePage relish the fact that they “tell it like it is.” For Trump, that sometimes means mocking a disabled reporter (The New York Times' Serge Kovaleski, last June), or proposing a ban on all Muslims in response to attacks from domestically bred Islamic extremists. For LePage, that might mean pinning the entire heroin crisis in Maine on people of color named “D-Money and Smoothie coming into the state and impregnating young white women.” The point is, both are prone to saying controversial and generalized remarks, often times painting in broad strokes with huge groups of people — a use of inflammatory language that their emboldened supporters adopt online and morph into hate-speech and abusive rallying cries.
“You just never know what to expect for either one of them,” said Ben Chipman during a phone interview with The Phoenix. “They’re both trying to shake things up, but not in a good way.”
Readers might remember Chipman as the Democratic member of the House of Representatives who led an unsuccessful effort to impeach LePage last year. When LePage used $530,000 of taxpayer money to blackmail Good Will–Hinckley, a 125-year-old charitable and nonprofit institution in Fairfield, into firing Maine Rep. Mark Eves the speaker of the house from the job he held there as president of a charter school, it was the final straw for Chipman, who felt that the governor had violated state law.
“We tried to hold the governor accountable for his behavior,” said Chipman. “Enough is enough, at some point you’ve got to stand up and do the right thing.”
While both Trump and LePage love to “fire from the hip,” with often times inaccurate and offensive statements, their methods of going off-script differ.
Trump tends to post his rants and vitriolic attacks on Twitter, where 20 million followers instantly receive them, without any process of fact-checking or accountability. LePage however, is virtually silent on social media, and usually spews his contentious statements to friendly audiences on conservative radio stations.
This level of unpredictability is regarded by political pundits as bad news for the country. It makes our leaders look like tantrum-prone bullies, and encourages trolls to hurl abuse online and in the streets.
But, according to Mike Tipping, author of As Maine Went: Governor Paul LePage and the Tea Party Takeover of Maine, it also degrades the integrity of media in America, which leads us to our next point of comparison.
A messy relationship with the truth
Mike Tipping, who is also a member of the Maine People’s Alliance, has experience going toe-to-toe with Paul LePage. Back in October of last year, LePage said that Tipping “should be thrown in jail,” for his efforts in raising the minimum wage — an initiative that voters passed overwhelmingly when it was a ballot question in last November's election.
According to Tipping, you could pick a thousand different instances of LePage and Trump indiscriminately attacking people, and when the press covers these controversies piecemeal, it can have damaging effects. Often times writers will focus on the “next crazy thing that LePage said” instead of educating the public on the most prevalent issues at the core of those remarks: the heroin crisis, the housing bubble, the aging labor force, and affordable health care coverage.
“I think the media is getting played in a big way,” said Tipping. “There should just be a bigger story that says “LePage and Trump lie all the time,” with evidence to back it up.”
Tipping believe that instead of publishing every controversial statement Trump or LePage make, reporters should strive to fact-check their statements, hold them accountable, and report on their direct actions and opinions on policy. In other words, a frantically written 3:00 a.m. tweet is not newsworthy.
“They have a similar relationship with the truth, which seems to really have changed our political discourse, said Tipping. “They lie with impunity and are successful in changing the narrative in their favor. They can make their own reality. They feel like they don't need to be beholden to the facts and the reality that we all thought we shared.”
Tapping into “the silent majority”
A big similarity between Trump and LePage is simply the demographics of people that support them. Both leaders rose to power from the same constituency: the mythical, white working-class voter.
According to Chipman, their supporters come from the far-right and some vestiges of the Tea Party movement. They’re angry, estranged and are looking for a leader to shake up the establishment. These folks want change. They want less government spending and interference. They want their gun rights. And they want tougher laws on immigration. To get there, they’ll happily settle for leaders with racist, sexist, or xenophobic baggage.
“Clearly, we need to do something differently in this country,” said Chipman. “But that anger should be channeled into something positive. We need to look out for everybody.”
Back in 2014, after Maine’s gubernatorial election, local journalist Colin Woodard asked what many in Portland were thinking, “How did America’s Craziest Governor Get Elected?” Lately, those same people have wondered what led to the rise of Trump, and the answer’s the same: split votes in three-way races, and underestimating the rural vote. The people that got LePage re-elected also came out for Trump, and for them, crazy seemed better than business as usual.
According to Tipping, a big facet of our political landscape nowadays is a mistrust in institutions. He said when people have experienced the effects of a broken and rigged economy that’s stacked up against ordinary working-class people, they feel inspired by the messages of Trump and LePage, with their promises to “drain the swamp.” But Tipping feels that Trump’s just talking up a big game and is full of false authenticity.
“He’s not going to get any better,” said Tipping. “I don’t think the office of the presidency will shape him to be a better person.”
But as politically conscious Americans have witnessed these past couple months, Trump and LePage's promises of change often prove to be hollow. Instead of addressing the systems that keep people oppressed in America, leaders like Trump prefer cozying up to big industries to protect their business interests. Recently, he appointed climate change deniers to top positions in the EPA, and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, presumably to protect the oil, coal and natural gas industries.
Here in Maine, LePage getting cozy with outside interests over the will of the majority of Mainers took many forms. It started early, during his first year in office, when he hired a pro-BPA chemical lobbyist to oversee the Department of Environmental Protection.
Throughout his career, LePage has been known for cutting social safety net programs so the wealthy could get a tax break, or vetoing key legislation that could have helped the environment and stimulated the state’s clean energy economy. Because of LePage’s ideological commitment to shrinking government (which is shared with Trump), and his practices of refusing to accept federal money, cutting public spending and failing to invest in infrastructure, Maine’s economy has stalled, and job rates are still not above 2008’s levels.
People have been hurting here in Maine under LePage. His unyielding allegiance to dying industries like timber and paper have cost people their jobs. His mistrust in big government has denied Mainers a Medicaid expansion. And last year, a state auditor found that his administration improperly used $13 million dollars in federal funds allocated for impoverished children.
Anxious Americans can hope that Trump is better with economics (like he says he is), and doesn't use the power of the presidency to protect or grow his business interests at the expense of the common good. But if they've learned anything about empty promises in politics, they know not to get their hopes up too high.
An uncertain future looms
If there’s one thing that’s for certain about the current political climate, it’s that everything is uncertain.
Nobody really knows what a Trump presidency will play out like. But with Republicans controlling the majority of seats in both the House and the Senate, many on the left are worried about the future of social justice causes. Will a Muslim ban actually get passed? Will a wall rise up between the U.S. and Mexico? Who will stand up for LGBTQ rights? Will a new budget proposal gut Planned Parenthood of its federal reimbursements?
Here in Maine, with LePage having less than two years left in office, questions surrounding the future are fewer but just as pivotal. Mainers got a taste of LePage’s final plans when he released his fourth and final budget proposal. Controversial highlights of the proposed budget include shifting to a flat income tax of 5.75 percent by 2020, a sales tax on home repairs, no money allocated to fund marijuana legalization or school superintendents, a restructuring of funding for K-12 schools, and the elimination of the General Assistance Program.
“For me, the proposed budget is a nonstarter,” said Chipman. “People value and understand the importance of these social safety net programs. Who wants to see hundreds of people go homeless across the state?”
Tipping too saw many problems with the proposed budget, the biggest ones being the restrictions on MaineCare and the elimination of GA, which are proposed to free up funds for a flat-income tax break that would save the wealthiest residents of the state thousands of dollars a year.
“It’s unfortunate to see for the families out there that are trying to scrape together money for rent and groceries,” he said.
Both Tipping and Chipman are cautiously optimistic about what life will be like under the combined leadership of Trump and LePage. So far, they said, things aren’t looking good.
“Under LePage, 50,000 people have lost their health-care coverage and have fallen through the cracks,” said Chipman. “Things have gotten worse in a lot of ways. I don’t think LePage and Trump as leaders are the best things for this country.”