The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.
What does it mean to be a Republican today?
On the one hand, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell contends it comes down to blocking President Joe Biden, saying, “One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” with “total unity from Susan Collins to Ted Cruz.”
Meanwhile, for Republicans throughout the country, the emphasis isn’t on obstructing Biden’s proposals to improve Americans’ lives, but on loyalty to the previous president, Donald Trump.
This is odd — and consequential.
Typically our political parties don’t usually define themselves around a losing presidential candidate. Moreover, Trump holds the dismal distinction of being the only president since polling began who less than half of Americans approved of every day he was in office.
Putting Trump at the center only works by ignoring Trump’s unpopularity and embracing the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election.
Take Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a once-moderate who’s gone all in on Trump.
Stefanik promoted absurd election claims, claiming that, of the 525,000 votes cast for president in Fulton County, Georgia, 140,000 were from “underage, deceased and otherwise unauthorized voters.” After explaining how he knew this contention was false, the spokesperson for the Georgia Secretary of State labeled “ludicrous” Stefanik’s “suggestion that one-fourth of all ballots cast in Fulton County in November were illegal.”
Speaking with Trump strategist Steve Bannon, Stefanik kept referring to the former president as “the president,” asserting, “We are one team and that means working with the president.”
In contrast, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming will likely be cast out of the House Republican leadership. While she has a very conservative voting record, Cheney committed the sins of acknowledging Biden won the presidency and contending that Republicans should “steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”
Maine has had its own experience with a figure like Trump. During the 2016 presidential primaries, Gov. Paul LePage proudly called himself “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.”
Besides their political links, one tie between the men was LePage’s big spending at Trump’s properties on Maine taxpayers’ dime — at a cost of $362 and $1,100 per room and a total of $22,000 in LePage’s final two years in office. As Portland Press Herald reporter Scott Thistle noted, LePage and his staff said they stayed at Trump’s hotel because it was cheaper than “comparable competitors — which was not actually true.”
Besides telling tales that don’t stand up to scrutiny, both have similar political styles and tendencies.
Trump and LePage engaged in science denial, including about health hazards.
Trump’s incessant downplaying of the COVID-19 pandemic is recent enough to be well-remembered, but perhaps fading in our memories was LePage making light of the dangers of a chemical, bisphenol A, a decade ago. Back then, a top researcher stated that there was an “overwhelming scientific consensus that BPA is a health problem” but LePage quipped that, after exposure to the substance, “the worst case is some women may have little beards.” LePage also undermined our public health systems.
Like Trump, who long insulted the news media, LePage did the same. During his initial run for governor, LePage remarked he was “about ready to punch A. J. Higgins,” a State House reporter for MPBN. In 2013 LePage said, while sitting in a fighter jet simulator, “I want to find the Portland Press Herald building and blow it up.”
As Trump did, LePage made nasty comments toward other elected officials, including members of his own party. For instance, in 2018, LePage called Republican state Sen. Tom Saviello, “the most repugnant human being I’ve ever seen in my life,” a comment that led lawmakers to send the governor a written request for an apology.
Now the Maine Republican Party is selling merchandise with LePage’s visage and the slogan “Miss Me Yet?” and recently it put aside a rule that would have kept it from coordinating with LePage. This looks like an attempt to prepare another LePage gubernatorial run.
Maine Republicans strongly backed Trump and LePage, but the general electorate wasn’t as sold. LePage won statewide twice with 37.6 percent and then 48.2 percent. Trump never carried Maine.
And after Trump, how many Mainers would want to go back to all that science denial, insults and associated drama?