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OPINION

Neighborliness gets a little harder in Trump Country

By GARY ABERNATHY | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 14, 2019

HILLSBORO, Ohio — The majority of residents in the Trump Country stronghold of Highland County remain united around President Donald Trump. Rather than shaking their resolve, the impeachment proceedings are solidifying their support. But while three-fourths of the electorate here voted for Trump in 2016, those among the other 25 percent view him through a different lens, while trying to make sure the deep partisan divide does not affect lifelong friendships.

Dinah Phillips has spent nearly two decades as chairwoman of the county Democratic Party, working against the local Republican tide year after year to advance her party’s candidates and agenda. After 50-plus years in the legal system as a court reporter, Phillips, 73, knows almost everyone, and has maintained positive relationships with the majority of residents regardless of political affiliation. But she has noticed a change under Trump.

“It used to be, we could have a good conversation,” Phillips said. But now, “I temper what I say more so than I used to, especially if I’m talking to a Trump supporter. They would get into a knock-down, drag-out fight, and I never felt that way before.”

She thinks Trump’s tariffs are harmful to local farmers, and several other policies are misguided. But what really bothers her is that Trump is “very divisive” — more so than previous presidents. “I don’t care for his language,” Phillips said. “We expect better from the president.” She finds it confusing that, when it comes to Trump’s words and deeds, “people who are religious don’t seem to care.”

Cody Mathews, 27, is an enthusiastic and loquacious student of politics who teaches history at Hillsboro High School and serves as president of the Hillsboro Education Association. He sees in the Trump administration analogies to two former presidents — Warren G. Harding in regard to scandals, and Andrew Jackson in the use of “racially charged language,” comparing Trump’s criticisms of undocumented immigrants with Jackson’s demonizing of Native Americans. Mathews said he cares more about issues than character flaws. He sees Trump as a “gaslighter,” pandering to the fears, rather than the hopes, of many Americans while, in fact, “he’s let down workers in the Midwest.” Trump, he said, is a reactionary, not a strategist.

Unlike Phillips, Mathews doesn’t avoid political conversations with Trump supporters. He enjoys a good debate. But he is mindful that most of his students come from pro-Trump families and he keeps his politics out of the classroom — even, he chuckles, when “the kids try to trap me.”

Wendell Harewood, 82, worked for the U.S. Postal System for 50 years, including 20 as postmaster in the county seat, Hillsboro, and has served on numerous boards and community organizations. He is soft-spoken and measures his words carefully. He is also among just 4.7 percent of Hillsboro residents who are black, and, for Harewood, the reason for Trump’s support here is not complicated.

“There are not a lot of people here who don’t look like him,” said Harewood. Harewood, who spent 50 years as an AME pastor, said he was “shocked” when Trump was elected. “I don’t think there’s a Christian bone in that man’s body,” Harewood said, pointing to Trump’s treatment of women and minorities. After what he hoped was a sign of progress with the election of Barack Obama, Harewood fears Trump “is taking us back to the ’50s and ’60s.”

He avoids using pejorative labels to define local Trump supporters, saying instead, “I think it’s more of the fact they’ve been brought up that way,” not trusting “anybody who doesn’t look like them.” Harewood echoed Phillips’ sentiments about living in Trump Country. “It’s becoming more difficult,” he said.

Even among local Trump critics, however, views on impeachment are mixed.

“I’m not sure impeachment wouldn’t further divide the country,” said Phillips, although he says ignoring the issues would send a message that “you can do anything you want and get away with it.”

Harewood, too, has doubts. “I wonder if everything is legitimate they’re bringing up,” he said, referring to both parties.

Mathews acknowledged that impeachment “plays well with Democrats,” but he also thinks it’s “the right thing to do.” To him, Trump’s Ukraine phone call represented not just a quid pro quo but also outright “extortion.”

Phillips, Mathews and Harewood expect that when they vote next year, they will be outnumbered 3 to 1 here by pro-Trump friends and neighbors. But whether it’s the optimism of youth, or wisdom beyond his years, Mathews isn’t discouraged.

“We’re all more alike than we are different,” he said. Respectful dialogue between Trump backers and critics can be fostered and friendships maintained “if you don’t treat politics like a sport, and if you stick to talking about issues.”

Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor based in Hillsboro, Ohio.

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