Gov. LePage may recognize how badly Trump’s attack on democracy could backfire
Is there trouble in paradise? Governor LePage, who has been an enthusiastic fan of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, was not on hand to introduce Trump at his latest visit to Maine, and he recently advised Trump to “get over himself.” What could be prompting this sudden chill between Trump and the man who has boasted that he was “Trump before Trump was popular.”
If there is a change of heart, it’s very recent. After the second presidential debate, when Trump threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton should he become president, LePage announced on radio station WVOM that “we need” a president to “show authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law.” The governor’s endorsement of authoritarian rule came after the release of Trump’s boastful confession of multiple cases of sexual assault; in fact, in that same interview, he acknowledged that Trump is “not the kind of person I would want my daughter going after.” But even then, he still supported “that kind of person” for the chief executive office of the nation. How did Trump finally manage to lose LePage’s support?
It seems it was the veiled threat Trump made at the end of the third debate that did it. “Not accepting the results,” of November’s election, LePage said, “I think, is just a stupid comment.”
The governor is certainly not alone in that opinion. Hillary Clinton called Trump’s snide refusal to abide by the results of a national election “terrifying.” His loose rhetoric about “rigged elections” and “voter fraud” has drawn broad, bipartisan condemnation. He has suggested that voting in “certain neighborhoods” in urban areas – “the inner cities” – are illegitimate largely on the basis of the presence of large numbers of black voters, and that undocumented immigrants – no, let’s use his terminology, “illegal aliens,” which carries the racial animus Trump counts on – are being enlisted to vote “as many as ten times.” Accordingly, he has called for his angry, white, male base to serve as “poll watchers,” by which he means shock troops who challenge and potentially threaten non-white voters. And he hasn’t stopped at threatening broad sections of the electorate. Multiple political scientists have suggested that Trump’s conspiracy theories about “rigged elections” might “undermine public confidence in democracy itself.”
It would be odd, though, if that sort of behavior was what finally wore out LePage’s patience. After all, the governor asserted just last week that Maine’s elections aren’t “clean,” that “people from the cemetery” and non-citizens vote in our state elections. As the Press Herald pointed out in its headline, this is an odd argument to make from a man who has won two state-wide elections. But unproven assertions of voter fraud are old hat in the Maine GOP. During the last presidential election cycle, Charlie Webster, who was the chair of the state Republican party at the time, alleged, with no proof, that “dozens and dozens of black people” suddenly appeared in rural small towns to tip the outcome of the elections.
Trump, in short, is reading from an old GOP script about voter fraud. Wild stories of a conspiracy to undermine our elections process – dead people kept on the voter rolls, non-whites and immigrants turning up at multiple polling places to cast ballots in their names – have played a part in Republican electoral strategies for years now, despite the fact that there is no evidence of anything like this conspiracy happening anywhere in the United States. Since the gutting of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v Holder, these allegations of in-person impersonation-based voter fraud have been used to pass restrictive new barriers to the franchise that disproportionately effect rural populations, the elderly, and non-whites.
Maine voters have turned back LePage’s efforts to restrict access to the franchise in our state before, and his recent comments suggest we may have to do so again.
So why does the governor object to Trump’s attack on the elections process now? The GOP nominee might as well be claiming that D-Smoothie and Shifty are driving Mexican immigrants up the 95 even now, in preparation for Election Day.
There is good reason to believe there is no broader reason behind this gubernatorial change of heart. Some of LePage’s outbursts seem clearly rooted in national narratives of xenophobia and fear, but others just seem to arise from personal pique, self-pity, and failures at anger management.
On the other hand, the governor might be finding himself confronted with the same uncomfortable realization that is being faced by many Republicans across the country. The malicious fantasies of voter fraud peddled by those segments of the GOP that want to refight the voting rights battles of 1964 and ’65 have been politically useful to the party as a whole, providing a strategy to demoralize likely Democratic voters, saddle them with new versions of the poll tax, threaten them, and disenfranchise them. But now, in Trump’s hands, the “voter fraud” narrative is being exposed for what it is. The imaginary threat has moved from state legislative subcommittee rooms to widely viewed prime time national television. Instead of targeting imagined threats to American elections, Trump is targeting voting officials across the country, many of them Republican. He is accusing national party leaders of being in on the conspiracy. He is trying to convince likely GOP voters that the elections process is a charade, and, while that increases the chances for violence from likely Trump voters, it also may well drive down voter participation by demoralized Republican voters. In fact, the share of registered Republicans who say they are likely to vote has already dropped by seven percentage points in just the last couple of weeks.
Just as Trump has dragged racism, xenophobia, and misogyny before national news cameras on a weekly basis, insisting that they are the sorts of things that “everybody does,” “just words,” “locker room talk,” he has laid the “voter fraud” rhetoric bare, and wielded it against his own party. And Governor LePage may just be exhibiting the impatience and angry surprise that accompany the recognition that this must be what it’s like, to have a narcissistic bully attack the political communities that you value.
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