Paul LePage and the Emerging Face of Conservatism

Governor Paul LePage has been creating more than ripples in Maine. Controversy is not unfamiliar territory for the governor. He is a frequent explorer into shadowy political valleys marked only with the words “Here Be Monsters.”

Some of his ventures have been symbolic.

He loudly refused invitations to honor Martin Luther King on the birthday of the martyred civil rights leader.

He hosted several friendly meetings with a militant anti federal government “sovereign citizens” group.

A few years ago, he ordered that a mural honoring working people, which included such icons as the fictional World War II character Rosie the Riveter, be removed from state offices. Honoring working people was anti-business.

Maine has a serious heroin addiction problem. When discussing the issue, he cast it as a racial invasion: “D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty; these types of guys.” And he made clear a major reason for outrage: “Half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is the real sad thing.”

Some moves were more substantive.

He met with officials of Maine’s Bureau of Labor, pushing to deny benefits to the unemployed. Cases should be decided in favor of those businesses who had laid off workers. He later told a cheering crowd that those workers should quit whining. “Get off the couch and get yourself a job.”

Maine regulates a common chemical found in plastics that is said to be toxic to children, banning it from products used for little kids or marketed to women who are pregnant. The governor refused to sign the law. “If you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards.” The legislation was passed without his signature.

Most recently, he provoked headlines by vetoing legislation that could save lives of those dying of heroin overdose. Maine’s independent Senator Angus King had asked a major pharmacy chain to provide the drug at very low cost to fire departments, police, and individuals. The pharmacy agreed.

But there was a problem. Distribution of the low cost life-saving doses the pharmacy was asked to make was illegal. The law needed to be changed. This year Maine’s legislature did just that.

It was a good move. The medication prevents death by overdose for just a little while. That little while is enough in many cases to keep a victim alive until medical help arrives.

Governor LePage vetoed the law. His written statement became instantly famous. “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose.”

The notion was almost universally condemned both as deadly and as silly on its face: That even the smallest effort to revive someone facing certain death is not worth the effort unless that small effort also provides an instant cure to the addiction itself. Live to fight another day is part of everyday language, and it seemed sensible. The governor’s veto was overridden.

Governor LePage is widely seen as an extremist, an embarrassment to the Republican Party. But that is today.

Tomorrow, well, tomorrow is less certain. There exists a hard kernel of contemporary conservative values even in his excesses.

Republicans have traditionally denied that their pro-business approach is anti-worker. Governor LePage is impatient with rhetorical tangles. His pro-business approach is overtly anti-worker. That mural honoring hard work had to be taken down because pro-worker meant anti-business.

His anti-civil rights suspicions of minorities as drug-peddling threats to white womanhood are similarly straightforward. He does not regard himself as racist, merely realistic. Remember his refusal to attend ceremonies acknowledging even Martin Luther King.

One argument that Republicans have applied to a myriad of programs has had a history as long as conservatism itself. Any action will produce an opposite result. So anything to help will hurt.

I was young when seat belts for automobiles were the raging controversy. Conservatives in those days argued that strapping in the occupants of vehicles would produce a sense of safety. That sense of safety would only encourage automotive recklessness. Seat belts would make people less safe.

The most consistent application of the same logic has been toward pretty much anything to help those in economic trouble: food, unemployment insurance, training all produce indolence.

The eternal Republican proposition is, will be, has always been, that anti-poverty programs trap recipients into a life of impoverishment. Feeding hungry children will remove any incentive desperate parents may have to continue their struggle to escape poverty.

Governor LePage merely applies the same reasoning to its inevitable conclusion. His reflexive reaction to legalizing naloxone, the drug that can save the occasional life of a drug addict, was this: “So you want me to encourage heroin? Okay.” His amplification is consistent. “Be a drug addict, and we will allow you, we’ll have everybody on the street have a little pen so if you croak we’ll inject you. That’s what they’re asking.”

His office further elaborated in a formal statement:

Creating a situation where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of naloxone in the other produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction.

Republicans do not yet argue that lifeguards promote drowning. They do not maintain that outdoor fire escapes encourage parents to let kids play with matches.

But ideas that were once considered part of conservative normalcy are now regarded by today’s faithful as too liberal for serious consideration. Candidates who were once the outer fringe of right wing extremism have been primaried out of office as insufficiently conservative.

The country continues to meander cautiously leftward, accepting of differences, helping those who need help. In the Republican party, a shrinking core of true believers rushes toward what they imagine as a lost ideal of supremacy. They are forever loyal to a shimmering memory of triumphant intolerance.

For now, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage merely mans the latest outpost in the uncharted wilderness of the conservative movement. He is, for conservatives, a trail blazer, lighting the path.

The Party of Lincoln is the Republican past.
The Party of LePage is the Republican future.

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2 thoughts on “Paul LePage and the Emerging Face of Conservatism”

  1. Perhaps Trump will pick LePage as his Vice President. They deserve each other and republicans deserve both.

  2. Great post. I had never heard about the seat belt controversy.

    We see that conservative approach to safety and consequences everywhere. Poverty, unemployment, and drugs are big ones, but so are sex education, contraception availability, abortion (people shouldn’t be able to “get away with” having sex without being forced to face the consequences), and much more. There seems to be a desire for people to suffer the natural consequences of their actions even when those consequences are preventable–but only for those things that conservatives don’t like and sometimes even when people couldn’t have chosen to do otherwise. I wonder how many obese conservatives would forgo medical care for the health problems associated with their weight in order to motivate themselves to “get healthy.”

    It is true that breaking bad cycles sometimes requires that we let people face the consequences of their poor choices. It may also be necessary when we don’t have the resources to protect them from those choices. But people like LePage are far too quick to jump on that solution as the only viable option, which leads me to believe that they are simply eager to find a way to ignore people they dislike.

    What’s particularly troubling about LePage is that, despite winning his last two elections because of split liberal votes, he did *better* in his second election, after the public had gotten to know him. Republicans in Maine apparently like the guy, no doubt in part to his “non-PC” (conservative code for “impolite toward non-conservatives”) behavior. Given the rise of Trump as well, you may be right about the future of the GOP.

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