Q&A: Straight Talk From Maine on Why Trump Won

AP Photo/Michael C. York

State Senator-elect at the Maine Democratic Convention in Bangor, Maine. 

On Election Day, Maine voters approved five ballot questions that legalized recreational marijuana, authorized a multimillion-dollar transportation bond bill, slapped a flat tax on earners making more than $200,000, changed election rules to allow voters to rank state and federal candidates, and raised the minimum wage. A gun background-check question failed—no surprise in a state with little gun violence and a strong hunting culture.

For Maine Democrats, these five referendum victories were the only real bright spots in an election that left them stunned by defeat. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2008 and 2012, Maine went solid blue for Barack Obama. This year, except for a few towns along the Canadian border, Donald Trump captured rural northern and inland Maine, while Hillary Clinton prevailed in the state’s urbanized southern, coastal regions. Under Maine’s apportionment rules for its four electoral votes, Trump got one electoral vote and Clinton, three.

Trump spent quite a bit of time campaigning in Maine. His anti-trade, anti-elites message pumped up people in the poorest and whitest state in the Northeast. He got a warm welcome from his political kindred spirit, GOP Governor Paul LePage, whose own tenure in office foreshadows what Americans can expect from Trump’s domestic agenda.

Not everyone in Maine was shell-shocked by Trump’s triumph. State Senator-elect Troy Jackson, a straight-talking Democrat from the town of Allagash, deep in the northern Maine woods near the Canadian border, understood the roots of Trump’s appeal, especially among rural, working-class whites. Jackson, who backed Bernie Sanders in the primary, told The American Prospect earlier this year that Trump channeled Americans’ frustration and anger with the economic status quo into his working-class champion persona—a feat that Hillary Clinton could not pull off. “People say, well I don’t want to be with [Trump] but he’s fighting,” Jackson said during a May interview. “They want somebody to fight for them.”

A logger by trade, Jackson served in the Maine Legislature for more than a decade before losing a 2014 Democratic primary for Maine’s Second Congressional District seat. A workers-rights advocate and a LePage critic, Jackson barely made it back into the state legislature this year, winning his Senate seat by only three percentage points over his Republican rival. The Democrats maintained control of the Maine House of Representatives, but the Republicans remained on top in the Senate, thwarting the Democrats’ chances of reclaiming the legislature and minimizing more assaults on public services by the erratic LePage.

This week, Jackson was elected senate minority leader in the state legislature, and the Prospect circled back to the outspoken Maine Democrat to ask him how a LePage clone like Donald Trump ended up as president of the United States. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Gabrielle Gurley: How do progressive Democrats respond to the era of Donald Trump?

Troy Jackson: I hate being in the minority. But I understand that it’s even more important when you are because you’re last the resort. It’s certainly no time to put your head down and hope that nothing bad happens.

Donald Trump understood that so many people feel like they are losing what they have in life because of bad trade deals and things like that. I flat-out don’t believe that he will do anything to help in that regard. But he made it a huge issue. He was very adamant that he was going to change those trade deals. Hillary Clinton was back and forth. No one knew if TPP was the gold standard trade deal or if it wasn’t the gold standard. That type of wishy-washy behavior is what many everyday citizens can’t stand.

Were you as shocked by the outcome as many Democrats are?

No, I wasn’t. I definitely saw it in my area, and saw it in other parts of the state. Trump either bamboozled people into thinking that he was definitely the one for them. Or, even knowing going in that he had never done anything to help a working-class person, people were just so mad and fed up with the whole thing, that they just said, “Screw it. I am voting cause because I am pissed off and can make a protest vote.”

I thought that nationally there was a chance for Secretary Clinton. But having dealt with people in Washington state on a lot of issues and talked with people in Michigan and Ohio about trade deals, it didn’t shock me at all that they felt the same way Maine did. People were having a real, real hard time supporting Clinton. When you get to the point that you can’t just muster a lot of things to get excited about, a person like Trump can sneak in there.

How do you respond to people who argue that Trump voters must be racist?

First off, regardless of this election, there is still racism. That’s not saying anything that people don’t know. I was shocked by the racism I saw with the first Obama election: I didn’t really think it was that prevalent. But I absolutely don’t believe that everyone who voted for Trump was a racist. I definitely think there were some. But it comes down to the track record. Secretary Clinton has done some unbelievable things for this country. But her track record—that type of Wall Street bullshit that she was just so wrapped up in that people were just like, “I can’t do it.”

Trump voters just completely threw caution to the wind. While I supported her, I understand completely the feeling that they have on issues: prescription drugs—you can buy them in Canada for so much less money for the very same drugs, but you couldn’t get them here; health insurance continues to be out of reach for people; then there’s student debt. Voters think, "I know what it is with her and even though everything tells me that this guy isn’t going to help me either, I’ve got to try something different." Honest to God, I understand that damn well. That’s why I was with Bernie Sanders.

Was there one particular moment that you realized that Hillary Clinton was in serious trouble?

For me, it was the WikiLeaks stuff, the DNC stuff. I really, really thought it was going to kill her. I knew damn well that they would just keep dropping it every so often leading up to the election and keep that wound wide open. Many of my Bernie cohorts just continued to say, “Why in the hell am I voting for her?” Obviously, the FBI bullshit was probably a big factor, too. But there was never any way for Bernie people to completely get over what happened with the DNC because they kept it right there front and center all the time. That was huge.

I read that 90,000 people in Michigan left the presidential race open and voted for every Democrat down the ticket. It’s possible the same thing happened here in Maine with a bunch of Jill Steins thrown in and maybe Gary Johnsons or maybe just blank, that wouldn’t shock me at all. I knew that they weren’t going to vote for Trump, but they weren’t voting for her either.

How did Trump appeal to rural voters—he went to Maine five times—in a way that the Democrats have failed to do generally speaking?

He came to Maine, he came to Bangor and then to Portland multiple times. That’s part of the problem, too, with the Democratic Party: Why do you go somewhere in Maine just because it’s easy to land an airplane? I’m five hours north of Bangor, so coming to Bangor that don’t mean shit to me. Trump did the same thing.

What he did do was talk about trade. Trade is how I got elected 14 years ago. It’s a constant thing here. Right now, I have person after person that’s getting laid off in the logging industry, while they’re watching Canadians come in and cut the wood and haul it back to Canada on their trucks. You can’t do anything about it because no one in the damn federal government’s got the balls to fix the issue. Trump is talking to people right at the moment that are seeing their paper mills get shut down or paper machines being shut down, and truckers being laid off.

Here in Maine, I passed a “Buy America” bill three years ago. The governor vetoed it and the Democratic Party never jumped on board. How can you make America great again if you won’t even buy American-made products? They are completely missing the boat on stuff like that.

I knew exactly what Trump was doing: He was inciting that fear and anger in people who had either lost their jobs, or were in danger of losing their jobs, or watched their neighbors lose theirs. He certainly didn’t walk the walk on it, but he did talk the talk.

Trump has stirred up far-right-wing hate speech and crimes across the country. What has that meant in Maine?

What the far-right has done so well is that they have convinced people that, when they are struggling, don’t ever look up at where the problem actually is, keep your eyes down on those less fortunate. It’s not the guy who gets $40 million in some type of government program that didn’t do shit to produce any jobs. It is not the people on Wall Street that completely screw up the economy that we had to bail out. It’s those bums down there who are getting $500, $600 a month on TANF. Get rid of them and your life is going to be better.

I’ve knocked on doors in Lewiston and talked to people going on foolish crazy about the Somalis. They are foreign to me also. But when I was in Lewiston, they were the people I saw working like crazy. No doubt about it, the anger and hatred is being misplaced. We have a big Roman Catholic, French Catholic population. You grow up being told to help your neighbor. And then you run into this type of mentality. It wasn’t that many years ago that the French were the persecuted ones here in Maine. Now it’s really sad to see some of these French people, not even the majority of them, have forgotten where they used to be.

There’s also issues with reproductive rights. Being Catholic, I’ve had a hard time, not with contraception, but with abortion. I struggled with that. But I took a tour of a Planned Parenthood facility in Portland earlier this summer to get a better understanding. I don’t have a big ego, so I try to figure it out. I was just really shocked at all services they provide there that have nothing at all to do with abortion. I was always good on funding for Planned Parenthood. Women should have a right to have abortions. But there was so much more that I didn’t even understand. These attacks on reproductive rights are going to be catastrophic for a lot of people.

Did Trump help down-ballot Maine Republicans?

I definitely think so, not only on trade, but on gun background checks. [Former New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg came to Maine to campaign for gun background checks. We all know that we are a cheap date in Maine: You can get on television here for next to nothing and get yourself a referendum for very little money. There are huge issues in this country with gun violence, but it hasn’t been like that to a great extent in Maine. That caused a lot of problems for me. I was opposed to Question 3 because I don’t like outside people coming to Maine and using their money to influence people. And I don’t think we have a problem in Maine with background checks that other places do. But if I hadn’t been opposed to that, I wouldn’t have won my election.

How did you win?

That area of the state is getting more conservative: They painted me as a Portland liberal and they said I wasn’t one of them in Aroostook County anymore. The only reason why I was able to stay above the fray is the fact is that I have been very outspoken. I understand very well that people like myself don’t have Wall Street lobbyists, they don’t have high-falutin’ lawyers that are all around state capitals everywhere and in D.C. Going up against the governor whenever I disagree with him, I believe that’s what people elect me for. That’s the only thing that pulled me across the line.

You know Governor LePage well: What is the key to working with him over the next two years?

I said consistently throughout my campaign that I’d like to put our petty differences behind us. He’s been there for six years and he’s never wanted to take advice from anyone, Republican or Democrat. But I am hoping there’s a change. It’s just too important; we have been spinning our wheels for way too long here in Maine.

How will Maine respond to likely new federal cutbacks now that Donald Trump has a Republican Congress? There are many federal programs that Maine depends on from health care to heating assistance programs like the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

About LIHEAP, I haven’t even been sworn in yet, and I have a number of constituents just this week talking to me about the problems that they are having with getting heating assistance here in Maine. You are only talking one tank of oil with LIHEAP, that’s it. People go through a tank a month up here. So that’s a problem.

Up until now the federal government has said to the governor, well, you can’t do this or that. They have given in on some things, but they pushed back on a lot of things. I’m sure that Trump is going to put somebody in Health and Human Services that is going to be much more in line with what he and LePage probably believe. You wouldn’t believe how many Republican business-owners here who have actually said that they were happy with Obamacare. That’s a problem. Who knows what’s going to happen now? In Maine, we are just along for the ride.

We lost our opportunity to pick up the majority in the Senate. While it hurts, that doesn’t even matter to me now. The only thing that I know damn well is that Donald Trump played a game. I said that from the beginning the difference between Trump and LePage was I thought Trump was saying things he believed he had to say, as opposed to LePage, who actually believes them. I am concerned about so many things now that it is not even funny.

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