WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — When deadly violence erupted between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, President Trump delivered a series of equivocating responses, including one in which he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
As criticism of Trump mounted, some Republican lawmakers hedged their critiques, trying to avoid rebuking the president directly. Paul Mitchell, a freshman Republican congressman from Michigan, was one of the first to denounce the famously thin-skinned president by name, tweeting, “You can’t be a ‘very fine person’ and be a white supremacist @POTUS.”
Later, during an appearance on CNN, Mitchell explained that “very fine person” and “white supremacist,” are mutually exclusive terms and that you “can’t use them in the same line.” Very fine people, he explained, would not linger at a rally attended by neo-Nazis and white supremacists; they’d leave immediately.
Mitchell’s criticism of Trump wasn’t exactly a profile in courage. But at a time when many Republicans were unwilling to criticize the president directly, it was a glimpse of the plainspoken congressman’s tendency to call things as he sees them, even if it means calling out the man on whose coattails he arguably rode to office.
The incident was still fresh when I met Mitchell in late August at the Brown Iron Brewhouse in Washington Township in northern Macomb County, the fabled battleground county that makes up part of Michigan’s 10th congressional district.
Mitchell was elected to political office for the first time in 2016 after a successful career as CEO of a medical company. He comes across as an apt representative for Macomb’s working-class residents.
He grew up in a big family that sometimes struggled to make ends meet. “My dad built trucks in a line, my mom worked at a Salvation Army,” he said. “We were poor. You don’t get ahead much with seven kids and working an hourly job.” Mitchell was the first in his extended family to graduate from college.
Mitchell has six children, including a son who’s a police officer. I asked him about the ongoing strife between police departments and racial minorities. “On a personal level, it’s disturbing, as you can possibly imagine,” he said. “My oldest son puts on a vest and a belt every day. He decided as a young kid that he wanted to be a police officer, help protect people.”
As for the Black Lives Matter movement, Mitchell said:
“It won’t make some of your viewers happy, but I’m sorry, I come from the perspective all lives matter. I absolutely do. I don’t care what color you are, I don’t care what religion you are, all lives matter and have value. We ought to treasure that, because it’s too easy to, when you start discounting humanity, it’s not a very good place to be.”
Macomb County, a northern suburb of Detroit, is a bellwether county that twice voted for Barack Obama before swinging to Trump by 48,000 votes—more than enough for Trump to become the first Republican to take the state’s 16 electoral votes since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Mitchell’s district, which includes northern Macomb County and parts of other counties in Michigan’s thumb, voted two-to-one for Trump over Clinton. Mitchell did only slightly worse, beating his Democratic opponent 63 percent to 32 percent
Both Trump and Mitchell appealed to voters here because they’re straight-talking businessmen who promised to bring back jobs lost to trade, cut taxes, and address Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure
The Democrats have lost touch with Macomb County values, Mitchell said. Their preoccupation with gender and race “doesn’t sell” here. “I guess the best way to view it is elitist East Coast, West Coast values don’t sell in Macomb County.”
“I think what happened is the values that we have here in Macomb and in this district were being discounted by the Democrats,” he continued. Those values, he said, are rooted in the idea “that you get up every morning, you try to support your family, that opportunity comes from working hard.”
Instead of focusing on racial grievance, more legislators should focus on the battle between the “haves and the have-nots,” he said. “I’d say the people that get up everyday and go to work here in Macomb County, they’re tired of hearing how they owe everybody else something because they have to go to work everyday. Flat out, it’s like…first and foremost I’m just responsible for taking care of my family,” he said of most residents’ way of thinking.
The county lost more than half of its manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. But Macomb’s residents don’t want a handout, just an opportunity to work, Mitchell said. “They want people to have the expectation that you’re going to get up and do the best you can to support your family.”
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