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Trump's racist rants thrust Michigan Republicans in awkward position 

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  • Apic World / Shutterstock.com

President Donald Trump's racist tweets earlier this month crossed a new line and forced Republicans into an awkward position — defend the president and alienate independents or condemn bigotry and face the wrath of Trump and his supporters.

Either one could have disastrous political consequences for Republicans in Michigan, which Trump narrowly won in 2016 by just 0.2 percentage points, or 10,000 votes. Trump has embraced a new strategy to portray Democrats as left-wing, out-of-touch radicals by focusing on four freshman congresswomen. On July 14, Trump suggested the four Democrats of color "go back" to their own countries. All are U.S. citizens; one of those lawmakers is Rashida Tlaib, who was born in Detroit.

On Sunday, Trump doubled down on his comments, saying, "I don't believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country."

"They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said," Trump tweeted. "They are destroying the Democrat Party, but are weak & insecure people who can never destroy our great Nation!"

The dilemma facing Republicans was underscored by the spectrum of responses to the racist rants, from tepid criticism to outright condemnation. Three of Michigan's six Republican congressmen chose another alternative: silence.

Rep. Paul Mitchell, of the 10th District, took the gentle approach.

"We must be better than comments like these," he tweeted. "I share the political frustrations with some members of the other party, but these comments are beneath leaders."

Rep. Fred Upton, of the 6th district, was less forgiving, but still managed to weave in criticism of Democrats.

"The President's tweets were flat out wrong and uncalled for," Upton said. "Frankly I'm appalled by the President's tweets. There's no excuse. Inflammatory rhetoric from both sides of the aisle that is used to divide us just isn't right. It's not helpful."

Rep. Bill Huizenga said he "strongly" disagrees "with what the President said in a series of tweets over the weekend."

"Every duly elected official needs to lead by example, end the personal character assassination attacks, and focus on finding ways to work together to make America the very best it can be," Huizenga said. "We are better than this, let's start showing it."

Michigan's three other Republican congressmen, Reps. Jack Bergman, John Moolenaar, and Tim Walberg, did not weigh in on the tweets.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, who recently left the Republican Party and is now an independent, was blunt:

"To tell these American citizens (most of whom were born here) to 'go back' to the 'crime infested places from which they came' is racist and disgusting," Amash tweeted.

In predictable fashion, Trump lashed out at Amash, calling him "a total loser."

"Great news for the Republican Party as one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress is 'quitting' the Party," Trump tweeted earlier this month. "No Collusion, No Obstruction! Knew he couldn't get the nomination to run again in the Great State of Michigan. Already being challenged for his seat. A total loser!"

Two days after Trump's racist tirade, four Republicans, including Upton, joined Democrats in voting to condemn the remarks as racist.

"Today's resolution was targeted at the specific words that frankly are not acceptable from a leader in any work place large or small," Upton said. "If we're going to bring civility back to the center of our politics, we must speak out against inflammatory rhetoric from anyone in any party anytime it happens. America embraces diversity, and that must continue."

Of the six Republicans in Congress, Upton is the most vulnerable and therefore can't risk losing votes from moderates and independents. He defeated his Democratic opponent, Matt Longjohn, by just 4.5 percent in 2018 in a district that includes Van Buren, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, Cass, and Berrien counties and a part of Allegan County.

One of Michigan's most popular Black Republicans, John James, is running for the coveted U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Gary Peters. In 2018, the Farmington Hills businessman and military veteran surprised pollsters when he came within six percentage points of beating Debbie Stabenow for her U.S. Senate seat.

How he responds to Trump could become a major factor in the race. Since taking office in January 2017, Trump's approval rating in Michigan has plummeted to 40 percent, according to Morning Consult.

Two polls in June showed Trump trailing hypothetical Democratic candidates by as much as 12 points.

So far, James has distanced himself from Trump and did not respond to Metro Times' repeated attempts to reach him for comment on the president's racist tweets. Last month, Metro Times reported that James appears to have erased mentions of Trump in his social media posts, including one that highlighted his "2000%" support of Trump's agenda. At a recent GOP Reagan Dinner in Macomb County, James spoke at a podium flanked by giant gold foil letter balloons that spelled "Trump." The photos he shared on his social media accounts cropped out the balloon letters.

Since announcing his Senate bid in early June, James has not mentioned Trump on his social media platforms. But it's only a matter of time before reporters question him about Trump at campaign events.

James' decision to distance himself from Trump is interesting because Trump has called him "a rising star" and endorsed him in his failed 2018 bid for Stabenow's seat. Vice President Mike Pence also stumped for James in Michigan during the 2018 race.

Trump twice considered nominating James as the ambassador to the United Nations, but passed him over each time.

Bad-mouthing Trump can backfire. Former Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina lost his primary in 2018 after repeatedly criticizing the president. Earlier this month, Sanford announced he's considering challenging Trump in the 2020 presidential primary.

The Michigan Republican Party has not shied away from Trump and joined in the criticism of the four freshmen congresswomen. At no point did the party address Trump's racist rants.

The party has also declined to return calls from Metro Times.

Michigan Democrats, on the other hand, have responded with zeal, saying Trump is stoking racial divisions in a shameless attempt to gain desperately needed votes.

Soon after Trump's tweetstorm, Tlaib called Trump "a lawless & complete failure of a President."

"He is the crisis," Tlaib said. "His dangerous ideology is the crisis. He needs to be impeached."

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin said Trump's comments were "racist and hateful."

"Telling a group of American women of color to go back to their country is fundamentally un-American," Slotkin tweeted. "That the President of the United States is making such comments toward sitting members of Congress is racist and hateful."

Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive activist and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, also tore into Trump.

"I'm Muslim. My parents are immigrants," El-Sayed tweeted. "I spent many of my childhood summers abroad. I eat food with names you can't pronounce. And I'm more American than you will *ever* be."

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