Old, White, and Right: The Politics of The Villages
By now, you have either seen or heard about the video shot in The Villages, Florida, in which a Trump supporter shouted “white power” twice and was rewarded with a retweet from President Trump and enough replays on national TV to make the man’s grandchildren seek entry to the witness protection program. I wasn’t there at the rally, but I have lived in The Villages (six months of the year) for the past three years. What makes me different from the vast majority of the approximately 130,000 other Villagers? I don’t support Donald Trump.
I grew up in Ohio with parents who were both staunch Republicans. I leaned that way as well (as much as a child can truly identify with a political party) until I entered college in 1969. Initially, I still supported President Nixon, although not vociferously, until May 4, 1970. On that day, only about 20 miles away from my campus, Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State and wounded several others, including a young man who grew up a few miles from me.
My politics changed. Since then, I have been what a pollster might call a “centrist Democrat.” I do not place party over country; I have voted for select Republicans over the years, but my priorities remain essentially liberal. I support background checks on gun purchases and bans on assault rifles (I personally own handguns), voting rights for all, public education, and universal health coverage for all (I am a physician). And I am adamantly opposed to Donald Trump. So what the hell am I doing in The Villages?
To understand the politics of The Villages, one must know something about its background. It started as a stereotypical Florida retirement community built of “premanufactured homes” in the 1970s. But few people wanted to live in a mobile home on an old cow pasture in Central Florida, away from the beaches and ocean breezes. The developers switched gears, added a host of community activities and amenities, and started building affordable single-family homes in the 1990s and the growth hasn’t stopped since. According to Census Bureau estimates, it has been the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country over the last decade. The population today is estimated to be over 120,000 people, 80 percent of whom are over the age of 65. In 2016, the Census Bureau labeled Sumter County, where The Villages is located, the “oldest” county in the United States.
The politics of The Villages initially mirrored patterns typical across the country. Older voters tend to lean Republican with an eye toward “conservative” values. In the 2000 presidential election, the Republican/Democratic split in Sumter County was about 54/43. That differential has widened with every presidential election since then. In 2016, the split was 69/30 for Donald Trump. In addition, The Villages is perhaps the “whitest” large community in the United States: The most recent Census Bureau estimates show 96.8 percent of Villagers identifying as non-Latino white, with 0.3 percent identifying as African-American. In recent years, those demographics have coalesced with a president who makes a point of highlighting racial and cultural divisiveness. It is now more acceptable in much of America to publicly display your prejudices and one can now see instances of such behavior out in the open in The Villages.
I first encountered The Villages when my sister moved there in 2005. It had only about 35,000 residents then and nothing remotely near the politicization of today. Other family members also moved to The Villages and I saw more and more of the wide range of retirement activities offered. It is truly remarkable how much there is to do in The Villages: golf, softball, swimming, pickleball, over 3,000 clubs, a senior education program, concerts, plays, and really cheap “happy hours” every night of the year. It has rightfully been called “Disneyland for seniors”.
But when the time came for my own retirement in 2018, I had significant misgivings about the changing political climate of the community. Trump was president and every time I visited, there were more and more pro-Trump signs and flags, and Trump-festooned golf carts. Every block had at least one home flying a Trump flag. I wanted to shout: “Hey guys, the election was two years ago; why are the signs still everywhere?” I came to realize that this was no longer just about an election, it was about the “cult of personality.” Many of these people seem almost to worship Donald Trump.
For folks like myself with a liberal bent, one had to listen carefully when you met a new neighbor to look for signs of their political persuasion. Initially, the majority of folks still held to the old adage of “never discuss politics or religion.” For example, I lived close to one of my neighbors for two years, before he finally let slip a comment about the botched government response to COVID-19. To my surprise he was a liberal, like me. For two years, both of us had been politely declining to voice our political views for fear of offending or angering each other.
Now, however, with the combination of deepening cultural divides, the increased national criticism of Trump and his heightened defensive responses and appeals to his base, the gloves are coming off in The Villages. Add in the frustration and fear of the pandemic (all of those wonderful activities and outlets for stress/frustration were shut down), and the social filters of politeness and respect for one another in The Villages are in serious danger of disintegrating.
I am saddened and frustrated by all of this. I respect the right of my fellow Villagers to a different opinion and to vote as they see fit, even as I disagree with those choices. I most assuredly do not respect their choices to become hostile, angry, abusive, and disrespectful to those of us who disagree. (And that goes just as much for the anti-Trumper in the video yelling obscenities and slurs at Trump supporters.) I worry about the long-term effects of this divide. Even as I pray that we dismiss Trump this November, I am not confident that The Villages can return to a civil discourse. Yet one more “legacy” of The Donald.