This is all our fault

The entire saga began with a troll.

Not just a troll, but a troll proud of trolling, whose interest was “political theater” and whose desire was to “needle” Paul LePage, with the hope of agitating him on the issue of race.

This isn’t my interpretation of the situation, it is what the person — Andrew Ritchie — says himself. It was Ritchie who stood up at a town hall meeting in North Berwick and asked the governor the following:

“Given the rhetoric you put out there about people of color in Maine, calling them drug dealers, etc., how can I bring a company here given the toxic environment you create?”

The rest, as they say, was history. LePage replied forcefully, referenced his now infamous binder, and reiterated his original comments from January.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, then made statements to the press, criticizing the governor for using “racially charged” rhetoric. A reporter relayed Gattine’s comments to LePage, and he lost control of himself in a fit of anger and lashed out at Gattine.

In a proud, self-congratulatory piece on Vice, Ritchie brags about how brilliant he is for “[setting] in motion a series of events that could end the career of Maine governor Paul LePage.”

You can detect the smug satisfaction as you read the Brooklyn comedian’s account of the event that started everything. How he couldn’t stand LePage, and was pleased to have an opportunity to attack and embarrass him publicly, and how he teamed up with a friend of his, Jamie Roux, to ambush the governor at the town hall.

“Jamie now attends almost all of Paul LePage’s town hall meetings, and having the chance to work with Jamie to needle a racist governor is like an actor getting cast as the lead in the next Iñárritu project.”

He could barely contain his glee at the opportunity to stick it to LePage.

Unfortunately, his juvenile antics worked and LePage took the bait, which is something no chief executive can allow himself to do. LePage himself admitted that his behavior since the incident, and in particular his treatment of Gattine, was unacceptable, inappropriate, wrong, and indefensible.

Gov. Paul LePage delivers his 2015 State of the State address. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage delivers his 2015 State of the State address. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Let me be clear, I agree with the governor’s self assessment. No accounting of this unfortunate series of events could possibly be written without stating clearly and without equivocation that he was wrong, that his behavior was something beyond irresponsible.

Let me also be clear that I believe bringing race into the discussion of Maine’s opioid crisis is also unhelpful, inappropriate and irrelevant. Even if his original point about the demographics of drug traffickers coming into the state was correct — and they seem not to be — it doesn’t matter.

When working on policy solutions to combat the invasion into our state of drug kingpins from other states, knowing the race doesn’t really change the calculus or provide a useful insight that would help beat the crisis.

So, in short, the governor is at fault, and I have many problems with his behavior, and he bears the chief responsibility in this story. If he had acted differently, this never would have been a controversy.

But at the same time, to pretend LePage is the only one responsible would be ridiculous.

We live in a sick, twisted political culture full of people who eagerly seek the destruction of political adversaries, promoting not just division, but irrational hatred of opposing views and those who hold them.

Like political Hatfields and McCoys, each incident like this inspires more anger and vitriol. This week, Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, received an email from a constituent that said, “I wouldn’t be sad if you died in a fire.” Last year, I received a card expressing a wish that I would get cancer.

This, unfortunately, is not the work of crank extremists. This is becoming our political mainstream, and what do you think the result is?

Anger. Resentment. Above all, a desire to get back at what is increasingly viewed as “the enemy” who doesn’t want a dialogue, but just wants the destruction of his political adversary.

It’s all fed by a complicit media that has moved at lightning speed into biased purveyors of soundbites and clickbait, uninterested in substance and obsessed with tabloid trash.

We have self-righteous politicians, many of whom have said far worse things behind closed doors than the governor said in public, who feel just fine acting morally superior just because they’ve never been caught.

We have a voting public that drives that media behavior by consuming the clickbait and the sensationalized, empty nonsense it creates, and asks for more.

And we live in a culture, driven by the internet age, that has so much at its fingertips that it incentivizes and encourages people to react first and think second.

Shame on all of us, I say.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.