Columnist Jason Williams heads home to “Trump Country” Albert Cesare,

Columnist Jason Williams returned to his hometown of Gallipolis, Ohio, in the heart of Trump country. Here’s why it was such a challenging assignment.

GALLIPOLIS, Ohio – I’ve been a journalist for 21 years. I’ve never struggled to write something as much as I have this column.

The assignment: Go back to the place where I grew up, here in the middle of Ohio’s Appalachian region across the river from West Virginia, talk to family and friends and my hometown people and offer a perspective on the heart of Trump country that few others in the media can.

Trump won 76% of the vote in Gallia County three years ago, his largest margin among Southeast Ohio counties. His sweeping success across Ohio’s Appalachian region — he won 30 of the state’s 32 such counties — played a big part in sending him to the White House.

This poverty-stricken area, nestled amid the picturesque Appalachian foothills about 150 miles east of Cincinnati, continues to stand firm behind Trump. And rural Ohio very well could play a part in re-electing him, barring impeachment.

That is, unless the Democratic candidates somehow miraculously start talking about real-world issues like jobs and safety. Tuesday night would actually be a great time for them to start appealing to everyday Americans, when the candidates debate 125 miles north of here in Westerville.

I thought this would be a fun story to do.

It wasn’t.

Mocked just for being from Appalachia

Here’s why: Many of my family, friends, former teachers, coaches, classmates and church congregates — and all their friends — in this county of 30,000 people are Trump supporters, and I didn’t want to put them out there, by name, for the trolls to feast on.

I love my hometown and its people too much.

These folks already get made fun of enough for being from Appalachia. They’re good, respectful people who are focused on taking care of their families. They want to be left alone. They don’t care about stupid Twitter wars, and I don’t want to be responsible for thrusting them into the vicious rhetorical crossfire between leftist activists and Trump sycophants.

I quickly came to the realization that this was going to be a challenge soon after arriving for my 2½-day stay in early September. I found that a lot of folks didn’t want to talk about Trump. They didn’t want to put themselves out there for fear of being verbally bludgeoned on Facebook and Twitter or in the grocery store or even at church.

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And those who did want to talk, well, they seemed to speak for those who wanted to remain silent: They’re tired of certain cable news networks and the leftist political class stereotyping them as a bunch of toothless, racist, backwoods rubes.

“I don’t want to talk about it because you can’t have an opinion unless it’s their opinion,” an African American Trump supporter said about the left. “Either you believe the way they believe, or you’re a racist or a homophobe. The reason I’m working is because of what Trump’s done. I just want to put my hard hat on and go to work every day.”

The man, who added he’s a registered Democrat, talked to Enquirer photographer Albert Cesare and me for nearly an hour on his front porch on a hot evening. He said a lady at his church had given him grief for supporting “racist” Trump, but the man said he’s seen no hard evidence that’s true.

The man then abruptly said he wanted no part of the story, stepped inside his house and closed the front door, leaving us sitting on the porch dumbfounded.

I didn’t blame him one bit.

Trump, the lesser of two evils

The truth is, these aren’t a bunch of Bible-thumping hillbillies. I spoke with nearly 20 Trump supporters. Most of them didn’t want to be quoted, but every single one of them said the No. 1 thing they like about Trump is he’s focused on jobs. Nothing about Russia or building walls or locking anyone up.

I know it’s hard for the out-of-touch political class that’s obsessed with hating Trump and all his supporters to fathom this, but there aren’t stereotypes on every street corner and dirt road here.

I put over 100 miles on my SUV driving around Gallia County, where I grew up in a middle class home on a 100-acre farm. I walked around our little downtown of Gallipolis, population 3,500 and the county seat. I hung out for hours at Remo’s Italian Hotdogs, Bob Evans, Montgomery’s Barber Shop, Shake Shoppe, Courtside Bar and Grill and McDonald’s – all the cool places.

I saw no MAGA-hat wearers.

I saw two Trump flags hanging from front porches, each on opposite ends of the county.

I saw one Trump bumper sticker, and it was on a luxury SUV. My colleague saw a “Trump 2020” doormat on a houseboat.

The only other time I saw or heard anything about Trump was when my dad was watching Fox News’ “The Five” in the afternoon. It’s something he enjoys in retirement after spending nearly 38 years working in one of the county’s two coal-fired power plants along the Ohio River, raising three sons and tending to my late grandfather’s farm.

Ironically, I often see more leftover Obama bumper stickers during my 15-minute commute to The Enquirer than I saw Trump signs back home.

If I go back in a year, maybe it’ll be different. Or perhaps it’s an indication that there’s not this wide-spread obsession with Trump – and never has been – in the areas where he dominated at the polls. It might be hard for some to grasp this, but don’t believe everything you read in the alt-reality world of social media.

Every person I talked to about Trump, generally said:

He was the lesser of two evils — and still is.

I like what he’s doing on the economy.

I wish he’d stop tweeting. 

Sounds like the same thing Trump supporters in Greater Cincinnati — and everywhere else in Ohio — say.

In Appalachia, people have hope again

Look, there’s no deep, why-do-these-people-love-Trump-so-much meaning here. Gallia County has long been really Republican.

This is the home of the late Bob Evans, where his namesake restaurant was founded in 1948. His family’s money has influenced GOP politics in Gallia County for decades. Bill Clinton in 1996 is the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the county. Before that, the county hadn’t gone for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964 (Lyndon Johnson).

Gallia County supported Republican Mike DeWine in his failed re-election bid for the U.S. Senate in 2006. Every other county in southeast and eastern Ohio went for Sherrod Brown.

It’s easy to see why the economy is top of mind. Gallia County is one of the poorest counties in the state. The power plants and the region’s main hospital are among the few options for good-paying jobs.

Trump’s policies are rooted in reality: My son was murdered by an illegal immigrant. Neither he nor Mollie Tibbetts deserved to die.

I can remember coming home a decade ago and there were four of those sleazy, check-cashing places within a 2-mile radius. All of the stores where we shopped growing up — Haskins-Tanner clothiers, Knight’s Department Store, Carl’s shoe store — had been shuttered.

But the residents have optimism like I haven’t seen in a long time. Gallia County’s unemployment rate is 5.6%, the lowest its been since 1979. Most of the storefronts in Gallipolis again have businesses. Some residents attribute that to Trump, though the economy was showing signs of rebounding before he was elected.

Trump doesn’t deserve all the credit. I’ve always felt like he played places like Gallipolis and Ohio’s other blue-collar areas on the economy.

Things are better, yes, but it doesn’t mean happy days are here again. Gallia County’s workforce is a staggering 20% smaller than it was in the early 1970s, and the current unemployment rate is still higher than the U.S. (3.8%) and Ohio (4.2%).