The headline last Saturday was one many Republicans have been waiting years to read:”Maine’s Republican Senate president tired of party’s personal attacks against Democrats.”
Senate President Mike Thibodeau was speaking out in the Portland Press Herald against the Maine Republican Party’s attacks on Democratic lawmakers that have gone from caustic to infantile in recent weeks.
The attacks culminated in elementary school-aged children being forced by their parents to hand out “Speaker of the Swamp” pamphlets in the halls of the State House, and holding signs with insulting imagery of Democratic Speaker of the House Sara Gideon.
It’s sad it had to get this far before a high-profile Republican spoke up. But at least it’s finally happened — a prominent Republican willing to say enough is enough.
Republicans in Maine are lost right now. On one hand, voters have finally come around to agreeing that government is too big and taxes are too high. But on the other hand, the party is governed by an attitude of pettiness and anger that makes them care more about rubbing their opponents’ noses in the dirt than actually helping our state prosper.
The Maine Republican Party as an institution right now reflects some of the worst tendencies of public discourse, and their approach to public communications resembles the shallow cruelty of a middle-school social squabble. They truly seem more focused on alienating voters than bringing them into the party.
There is no effort whatsoever to convince people that GOP principles of limited government are well-founded; instead the party is spending its time and resources on self-aggrandizing, pretend news videos and never-ending personal attacks on social media.
If you disagree with these Maine Republicans, you aren’t just wrong. You’re a bad person. The party and its echo chamber of elected officials and staffers insult those who disagree with them on a regular basis. Liberalism is “a mental disorder,” Muslims are “vermin” and the Democratic Party is a “danger to the Republic,” one GOP lawmaker posted on Facebook. Democrats are “lunatic leftists” or “Dem swamp creatures,” tweeted another. And Democratic leadership has failed because “corruption [is] plaguing [the] state house” on their watch, a Republican Party official tweeted.
It’s gotten so out of hand.
Conservative writer Daniel French wrote a piece about this recently in National Review, titled “The Rise of the Tough Guy Right.” French describes the growing online aggression coming from Trump supporters as an attempt to elevate petty sniping to the levels of heroism by using over-the-top rhetoric.
“They wish they had been there fighting evil when the bullets flew, so they cast their present activism in the most dramatic terms. They’re not just typing; they’re ‘fixing bayonets.’ They’re not just tweeting; they’re ‘firing back.’”
French goes on to describe to a T what we’re experiencing in Maine right now.
“They are the tough-guy Right, and you can always tell when you’re dealing with them. Express concern that, say, Trump’s first national-security adviser lasted less than a month on the job before being fired, and you’re ‘pearl-clutching.’ Call out lies on your own side and you’re accused of angling for a gig at the New York Times, or of attempting to curry favor with the crowd that frequents those ubiquitous Beltway cocktail parties. Criticize these tough guys and they’ll call you a mealy-mouthed ‘beta male,’ looking at the liberal elite and begging for love.”
Besides being a generally foul way to conduct public discussion, this approach simply doesn’t work. Thibodeau’s statement to the Press Herald made this clear:
“We’ve got problems to solve,” he said. “We ought to focus on them, there are plenty of things to have disagreements about. Let’s have disagreements about things that are important to the people that sent us here. Making sure we deliver the best state government we can with the limited resources we have ought to be that focus — not demeaning one another, sending out black-and-white photos of one another, trying to convince the public that this place is full of corruption and people who aren’t honest brokers.”
French’s National Review piece puts it more pointedly. “None of this is honorable. It’s low and partisan. I don’t care how many war allusions you use, how insulting you are on Twitter, or how many times you accuse your opponents of ‘pearl-clutching’ and ‘bed-wetting.’ Unless your argument is honest, principled, and consistently applicable to both sides, you’re just being tribal.”
Politics is the art of convincing your opponents that you are right, and you can’t do that if you’re spending all your time degrading them. Two-thirds of the Maine electorate is not Republican, which means we need to do more of that convincing in order to govern with a mandate.
Thankfully, Mike Thibodeau has provided Republicans with the template for the kind of dignified debate that can build consensus across party lines.
We can only hope others will follow.