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Vaccines And Masks Are Drawing Fierce Rhetoric In Maine. Here’s Why Some Of It Is Dangerous

Protesters shout at a float carrying Gov. Janet Mills during the pandemic-delayed State of Maine Bicentennial Parade, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine. The parade was held against a backdrop of a surge in coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant and an ongoing debate over rules put in place by the Mills administration to protect residents.
Robert F. Bukaty
Protesters shout at a float carrying Gov. Janet Mills during the pandemic-delayed State of Maine Bicentennial Parade, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine. The parade was held against a backdrop of a surge in coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant and an ongoing debate over rules put in place by the Mills administration to protect residents.

In this week’s newsletter: An extremism expert discusses the dangers of the protest rhetoric; more vax time for health care workers; fallout from the Texas abortion ban; Sen. King calls for patience in assessing Afghanistan withdrawal; Pingree gets a challenger.

The vaccine and mask protests in Maine and around the country have drawn a lot of attention, particularly given that polls indicate that protesters represent a distinct minority view among the population.

But the protests are often noteworthy for the extreme rhetoric some have used to voice their opposition to mask requirements in public schools or, in Maine, vaccination mandates for health care workers.

One resident in Lee County, Florida, made an overt threat to school board members as they considered a masking requirement for schoolkids.

"These are demonic entities, and all the school boards of all the United States of America, and all of us Christians, will be sticking together to take them all out," the woman said.

Robert David Steele, a conspiracy theorist who reportedly died from COVID-19 last week in a Florida hospital after calling the pandemic a hoax, had a similar message when he spoke at a rally in Belfast this summer.

"School boards today are walking around with a death sentence on their forehead,” he said. “Gun-packing mommas are starting to gang up and decide the day before to go to the school meeting and tell the school board, 'You're fired.' That's the beginning of democracy."

Steele was apparently referencing protests and heated public comments at school board meetings that are forcing educators to consider quitting, according to the Associated Press.

Republican state Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, shared a stage with Steele at that same event. She also made headlines for comments she made at a recent State House rally when she compared Democratic Gov. Janet Mills to a Nazi doctor who experimented on Jews during the Holocaust.

"So we have Josef Mengele and Joseph Goebbels being reincarnated here in the state of Maine," Sampson said.

Many in the crowd cheered Sampson's comments and some of the same activists later gathered along the Longley bridge between Lewiston and Auburn to shout at the governor as she rode in a float to celebrate Maine's bicentennial.

"Stop the mandate! Stop the mandate! (Expletive) you guys, (expletive) you all!" one demonstrator screamed as she shot video of Mills riding past.

A protester wears multiple face coverings during the pandemic-delayed State of Maine Bicentennial Parade, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine. The parade was held against a backdrop of a surge in coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant and an ongoing debate over rules put in place by the Mills administration to protect residents.
Robert F. Bukaty
A protester wears multiple face coverings during the pandemic-delayed State of Maine Bicentennial Parade, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, in Lewiston, Maine. The parade was held against a backdrop of a surge in coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant and an ongoing debate over rules put in place by the Mills administration to protect residents.

University of Maine professor Dr. Karyn Sporer specializes in criminology and extremism and is a researcher for the Department of Homeland Security's National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education Center. She told Maine Public this week that the extreme rhetoric that we're seeing today isn’t necessarily greater than it has been in the past.

"Far-right extremism in particular has always had a foothold in Maine," she said. "There's no evidence that there's more today than there was in the past, certainly there's no data to support that. But a major difference is that extremists haven't been so loud and so public, and as widely reported on, as they are today."

Sporer says anti-Semitic views, such as those shared by Steele, were typically confined to the shadows because those opinions were abhorred by most people. Now, she says, those sentiments are increasingly finding their way into the public square.

"You know, they were stigmatized for a number of reasons. They've been relegated to sort of the dark corners of society. So they had to find settings where they could meet with one another, express their extremist beliefs, share propaganda, coordinate their activities — all those things," she said. "And of course, the internet. So, in this field we call it hidden spaces of hate. The internet really has fueled extremism. All types of extremism, not just political or far-right extremism."

To be clear, Sporer isn't necessarily arguing that all the views shared at recent political demonstrations meet the definition of extremism. But she says the rhetoric at the State House rally a couple of weeks ago is concerning.

"People are getting permission to come out, without fear of retribution, really," she says. "So why wouldn't they be extreme?"

She blames politicians, including former President Donald Trump, for giving such views oxygen. By voicing them or by failing to forcefully condemn them, she says they’re also normalizing them. For example, Sampson has said that she doesn't share Steele's anti-Semitic beliefs, but Sporer says elected officials can't simply separate themselves from an extremist with whom whom they openly share a stage.

“What's concerning is that our elected officials are giving these people a platform,” she says. “You can say you don't support or agree with what they're saying, but you're still giving them the platform, which gives them social capital. If they get social capital and the support by an elected official whom you voted for, or you trust — or you're angry at society because you have to wear a mask to Hannaford — you're going to start to maybe see some holes in reality.”

Sporer says the danger of platforming extremists views is evidenced by QAnon, a sprawling conspiracy that offers a smorgasbord of fantastical rationales and unfulfilled prophecies that has grown to include disinformation about vaccines, satanic cabals of pedophiles and the stolen election fallacy.

Its believers were among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and adherents in Maine have shown up at recent anti-vaccine demonstrations.

Steele was a believer. He claimed during the Belfast rally that U.S. military bases are part of the conspiracy.

"They are lily pads for the smuggling of children, guns, gold and dirty money,” he said. “They need to close those bases, bring our troops and their wallets home.”

Bringing U.S. troops home from foreign soil is an important issue to many voters.

So is vaccine opposition, which Sporer says can pull in both the far right and the far left.

Uniting those factions might yield electoral benefits for Republicans next year, but Sporer says using extremist rhetoric to do it can have pernicious, lasting results and radicalize some people who come to fully believe it.

"Trying to find somebody who can send the message to counter this radicalization process should be our No. 1 priority right now," she said.

But for some there may be no going back, even when the messenger is the former president of the United States.

"I believe totally in your freedoms, I do. You gotta do what you have to do. But, I recommend taking the vaccines! I did it, it's good. Take the vaccines," said Trump at a recent rally, drawing boos from some of his supporters.

He added, "That's OK. That's all right. You got your freedoms."

More time for health care workers

The governor announced Thursday that she’s extending the deadline for health care workers to get vaccinated for COVID-19 by about a month.

The original Oct. 1 deadline still stands, but the governor announced yesterday that enforcement of the rule won’t begin until Oct. 29. In a statement, Mills said the extension is designed to give health care workers more time to get their shots and also for health care providers to get a slice of the $146 million that the state is providing them to bolster their workforce amid turnover,either from existing shortages or ones that could be worsened as a result of the vaccination requirement.

“My goal is that every health care worker in Maine is vaccinated,” Mills said in a statement. “Anyone who is placed in the care of a health care worker has the right to expect — as do their families — that they will receive high-quality, safe care from fully vaccinated staff.”

As of Thursday, the average vaccination rate for health care workers across all sectors was 76%. The highest rates were in ambulatory surgical centers and hospitals, while the lowest were in nursing homes and intermediate care centers for people with intellectual disabilities.

The issue has been hotly political (see above), generating protests among some health care workers and political activists who hope to sweep them into a conservative coalition for next year’s election.

King to Afghanistan doomers: Wait for the facts

There has been plenty of blame assigned to the Biden administration for the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan, but independent U.S. Sen. Angus King isn’t ready to pile on just yet.

In an Op-Ed in Time Magazine, King says that while mistakes were made, “the rush to assign blame to the President and his team is unfair at this point, and there will be plenty of time this fall for the relevant congressional oversight committees to determine what went wrong — and right.”

A key question, he wrote, is the extent to which the speed of the Taliban’s takeover — or the U.S.-backed Afghan forces’ quick collapse — was adequately foreseen by U.S. intelligence.

“In their rush to assign blame to Biden, the critics largely ignore this elephant in the room — that it wasn’t our job to stop the Taliban in Kandahar or plan the defense of Kabul with the few American troops then remaining in the country; that was the responsibility of the Afghan government and they didn’t do it,” he wrote. “But shouldn’t good intelligence have predicted this?”

As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, King may be in a good position to answer that question.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is also a member of the Intelligence Committee. While she was critical of the early chaos amid the fall of the Afghan government, she has not said much about the latter stages of the U.S. evacuation, which resulted in roughly 120,000 Americans, allies and Afghans successfully leaving the country.

King has been critical of the Biden administration for not moving more quickly to evacuate Afghans who assisted the U.S. during its occupation.

Texas abortion ban puts Collins on hot seat

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to block a Texas law that effectively bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — at least for now.

The 5-4 ruling has put Collins squarely in the spotlight. It could also become an energizing issue for Democrats during the 2022 midterms.

For Collins, the court’s ruling immediately brought her critics to her 2018 speech when she announced that she would vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh, along with fellow Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, sided with the majority in declining to block implementation of the Texas law while waiting for a certain legal challenge from abortion rights advocates. To recap, those same critics hoped that fierce pressure campaigns would convince Collins, who identifies as pro-choice, not to confirm Kavanaugh.

Collins’ rationale was that Kavanaugh had reassured her in private meetings that he would not break precedent in overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

In her lengthy, high-profile defense of Kavanaugh, she said, “In short, his views on honoring precedent would preclude attempts to do by stealth that which one has committed not to do overtly.”

The timing of the court’s ruling, as well as Kavanaugh’s decision, late Wednesday night immediately boomeranged on Collins.

Responding to a request for comment on Thursday evening, Collins wrote, “the Texas law is extreme and harmful.”

“The Supreme Court recognized that there are ‘serious questions’ regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law, and it emphasized that its recent ruling does not address those questions. I oppose the Court’s decision to allow the law to remain in effect for now while these underlying constitutional and procedural questions are litigated,” she said.

In another statement provided Friday, Collins said, “I’ve cast votes on seven of the nine justices on the Supreme Court. Of those I’ve voted to confirm, three voted with the majority and three voted with the minority. The one I voted against voted with the majority.”

In a statement first released on Twitter, King said, “In the dead of night, 5 Supreme Court Justices decided to allow a radical Texas law that all but bans abortion to stand. As a result, millions of Texas women won’t be free to make vital healthcare decisions with their doctor’s advice.”

He added, “This shouldn’t have been a tough call. The Texas law is blatantly unconstitutional and the equivalent of a legal shell game, cynically crafted to achieve its end goal. It’s so transparent — yet, somehow, 5 Justices went along with this unprecedented approach.”

Some conservative observers of the court seem to agree that the law will eventually be overturned. However, in the interim, other states under Republican control could quickly enact similar abortion bans modeled after the one in Texas.

That could affect legislative contests next year in Maine and across the country. It could also impact gubernatorial contests, including the anticipated race between Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

While LePage’s campaign has sworn off public statements until after his reelection speech is delivered Sept. 22 at the Augusta Civic Center, Mills wasted little time reacting to the court’s decision.

“The Supreme Court’s refusal to prevent this dangerous law from taking effect is a dog whistle to extremists that they can and should push forward their anti-choice agenda in state houses across the country,” she said in a statement. “Here in Maine, you can be damn sure that as long as I am governor I will stand strong to protect the rights of women and that I will fight every and any threat to undermine, roll back, or outright eliminate access to reproductive health care services.”

Pingree gets a GOP challenger

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree hasn’t had much competition for her 1st District seat since first winning it in 2008.

That includes the GOP wave election of 2010, when Republican Dean Scontras came within 13 percentage points.

Ed Thelander, a retired Navy SEAL from Bristol, hopes to break that trend in 2022. He announced last week that he plans to challenge Pingree next year.

As of Thursday, Thelander had not registered with Federal Elections Commission, but he has established a website and made a couple of appearances on conservative radio stations.

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.