June 22, 2018
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Sideshow Paul


Paul LePage’s critics are vociferously expressing their horror at the governor’s latest unvarnished wisecrack. They will explain with restrained outrage which groups of people the governor offended and why with his alleged attempted joke about BPA causing women to grow beards. The critics may even secretly delight in the embarrassment Maine faces as national news media report the story.

The governor’s die-hard supporters, meanwhile, will essentially tell critics to lighten up. The wisecrack was made in an offhand manner, and the fact that it was reported shows the news media’s inherent animus toward Mr. LePage, they will say.

As the two sides trade jabs, the underlying issue — a debate about government’s role in keeping people safe from toxic chemicals and whether businesses are being hurt in the process — will fade. But there’s more to this story. The governor’s infamous cracks, which range from the insensitive and crude to the exaggerated and invented, have begun to suggest a pattern.

On the one hand, the pattern may be evidence of an undisciplined and intemperate manner and nothing more. Mr. LePage suggested as much during the campaign, explaining that his lack of polish was the result of his legendary rough childhood, growing up on the streets of Lewiston after leaving home.

But there is another possible explanation, one that arises from a bit of armchair psychological analysis. The ridiculous claims about black fly and buffalo surveys, the crack about Libby Mitchell getting old, threatening to punch a reporter, and the “Kiss my butt” and now the “women may have little beards” remarks may be a kind of strategy. The behaviors may not be consciously chosen, but Mr. LePage may have learned that these jibes deflect and distract. Like a running back bobbing and weaving his way down the field, the governor may have had political success in the past with this approach — remember his pride at being called “Front Page LePage”?

The Jewish hybrid language of Yiddish has a wonderful word that may apply. “Shtick” is most often used in reference to an affectation in a comedic routine (for example, Rodney Dangerfield’s perpetually disrespected character), but it also fits political behavior. In comedy and politics, the shtick encourages audiences to meet the performer halfway. We recognize it when it appears, don’t question it very deeply and prepare for what follows by suspending our expectations for normal behavior.

The most dangerous effect of Paul LePage’s shtick may be that Mainers either shake their heads in mock disbelief or chuckle conspiratorially the next time he trots it out. And the earnest debate that should ensue will be nudged offstage by the soft-shoe shuffling, impishly giggling bad boy who, not coincidentally, will have gotten his way legislatively.

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