By Tom Lamia
After having his nose and jaw broken by his drunken father, an 11-year-old boy ran from his Lewiston, Maine home never to return. Living on the streets, with French as his first language and not attending school, he survived, but with memories, one supposes, that were not charitable towards all. Of his seventeen siblings, only six survived past infancy. After a few years of sleeping in horse stables and honky-tonks, he began to shine shoes on the street and make his way into the world, where he was noticed and given a hand-up by strangers. When he completed the eighth grade, he became the first among his parents and siblings to do so.
He graduated from high school in Lewiston in 1967, supporting himself by a series of demanding, low-skilled jobs. Setting his mark for a respected career, he applied to Husson College in Lewiston, encountering a further challenge—passing a verbal aptitude entrance test in English. He failed. One of those who had come to know him and admire his work ethic interceded with Husson, suggesting that the test be administered in French, his first language. It was. He passed. While at Husson, he became Editor of the college newspaper.
The rest of this Dickensian story is as remarkable as the beginning. With his talent and ambition, he continued to compete and overcome challenges—managing a lumber company in Canada, then a paper company in Winslow, Maine—before starting a successful business consulting company. In 1996 he became the General Manager of a statewide discount store chain. Then he went into politics: two terms on the Waterville City Council, then two terms as Mayor of Waterville. He was making the same good impression on state Republicans as he had made in his odd-jobs career on the streets of Lewiston. Paul LePage was on his way to becoming Governor of a state known for solid mainstream Republican governance.
This newly launched politician differed from most others, however. He was tough, opinionated, crude, and self-confident to the point that his was the only opinion, no matter how ill-founded, that mattered. He was the product of his experience.
There is much to be admired in Paul LePage. The qualities that got him elected Governor of Maine in 2010 provide him, still, with a committed base of voters. Yet, he is among the most unpopular of all U.S. governors. In 2016 his approval rating was 38 percent, while his disapproval rating was 58 percent. In this disparity, and in his behavior and policies, he conforms to a model essentially identical to that of Donald Trump. As he, himself, has said, he was Trump before Trump.
He rants, he bullies, he uses obscene language to describe opponents, he is a climate change denier, and is oblivious to constitutional limitations on his power. Good manners and temperate behavior do not appeal to him. He has said that the Democratic leaders of the State Senate and House are guilty of treason and should be executed. When a retiring Democrat Speaker of the Maine House was offered the presidency of a charitable organization involved with charter schools, Governor LePage withheld $500,000 in state funds from the organization until the offer was withdrawn. In his first days in office, he ordered that a mural depicting Maine’s labor history be removed from a state building, calling the mural “anti-business.” He has vetoed more bills, by a spectacular margin, than any governor in Maine history. To increase the vote needed to pass legislation to two-thirds he once threatened to veto every bill passed by the legislature, regardless of merit.
Other similarities between Lepage and Trump include being elected by less than a majority of voters—38 percent in 2010. But (pay attention here) in 2014, when he was elected for a second four-year term, his less-than majority vote climbed to 48 percent. Despite years of demonstrated pugnacity and ineffectiveness, he improved his negative margin by ten points. That is a lesson, as we look forward to 2020.
Maine might not be a reliable sample for a test case of Trump’s future electoral prospects. Independents make up 37 percent of Maine voters; Democrats (34 percent) and Republicans (28 percent), if they are to be elected, must find a message that goes beyond party loyalty. Independents get elected (Senator Angus King), as do independent-minded Republicans (Senator Susan Collins). The state is known for its rocky coast and its hardscrabble working population (lobsters and lumber). Life here provides its full share of hard knocks. Voters in Maine did not fall in love with Paul LePage but they liked his story. They understand mavericks, but know that drama is not a substitute for competence.
Hard knocks produce self-confidence among survivors—who scorn the advice of those who have had it easy. This was the case with Paul LePage. Donald Trump’s case is similar. He survived a win at any cost family competition to succeed his father. He is a survivor who scorns the advice of those who have not been in that struggle. Despite his many unpleasant qualities, he is a fierce and unscrupulous competitor. Competitors do not like to lose. LePage chose not to run for any office this year, probably because he did not like his chances. Perhaps Trump’s continuing failure to work effectively with others will lead him to the same conclusion in 2020.