For all the Republican fears about fraud in the 2020 presidential election, it is striking that the actual cases of fraud under investigation have overwhelmingly been committed by Republicans. Just last week came another story of an individual arrested for casting multiple ballots—the fourth such arrest from a single jurisdiction: the country’s largest retirement community, The Villages, located in Central Florida. It’s where I happen to live.
In a July 2020 article for The Bulwark, I described the pre-election political divide within the sprawling, demographically old community. Not surprisingly, The Villages voted overwhelmingly for Trump; he won by 68 to 32. The post-election political atmosphere of the community reflects that of the country as a whole, with the added attraction of a supermajority of Trump supporters, many of whom are intent on perpetuating the former president’s Big Lie. Drive through The Villages today and you will still see Trump stickers and flags aplenty, though not quite as many as before the election. But it is the intensity of those who still fly the Trump flag that is most interesting and disconcerting.
As a physician, I have always been fascinated by the psychology of my patients. The interplay of physical and mental realms of health have such an enormous effect on a person’s well-being. Here in The Villages, I am struck by two psychological phenomena that stand out—one that manifests itself on an individual basis, the other within the community as a whole.
There are multiple examples of individuals who simply will not, or possibly cannot, accept the reality that Donald Trump lost the election. We all see and hear plenty of politicians and pundits who espouse that same fantasy, but in most cases they are doing so for selfish reasons; to pander to their base, to bring in more campaign contributions, to gain more TV viewers. These persons are presumably intelligent enough to understand the math, to review the court cases, to brush aside the meanderings of fools, and they should know the truth. It’s just that they are too cynical to care.
But here, within the confines of a quiet, retirement neighborhood, residents have nothing to gain by promoting the lie that Trump won. They truly believe it. And they are not afraid to show it, sometimes in angry and disturbingly uncivil ways.
There is a retiree who has turned the family garage into a showcase of pro-Trump/anti-Biden banners and paraphernalia. The Villages has an ordinance that prohibits political signage displays in residential yards. So, in order to comply to the letter with that ordinance, the shrine to Donald sits in the garage and the garage door is left up so that all who pass by can marvel at the level of Trumpian devotion.
I recently encountered an even more disturbing example of Trump ideology that devolved into hateful vitriol. A golf cart pulled into a community parking area with an elderly couple inside. The cart was festooned with stickers that announced the driver as a proud veteran. Also attached to the cart was a brand new, exceedingly large bumper sticker that boldly shouted “Democrats are Traitors.” I was taken aback and just stared for a moment, while the driver glared at me. I took a deep breath and calmly told him that he knew nothing of my personal patriotism and I did not appreciate the insulting message he promoted. He immediately started yelling and telling me that I needed to accept a new reality. Huh? We could have talked more about the concept of accepting “reality,” but I didn’t see that potential conversation as anything remotely approaching helpful and walked away.
What does it mean when a person so enmeshes his or her personal identity with the persona of someone they have never met, a political figure known only via TV and the web, someone who has not made any significant intellectual or inspirational contributions of any kind, someone who is known for failed businesses, a mean-spirited game show, and a presidency that resulted in two impeachments and an insurrection? Is it the political normalization of bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, and grade school name-calling—which is what the “Trump is a fighter” notion boils down to—or is there some other kind of attachment? I confess that I do not understand the “Free Britney” movement either, but at least she has contributed a few catchy tunes.
Paradoxically, there is a wide chasm between the professed devotion to freedom echoed by the loudest of the conservatives in The Villages and the actual government found here. Every day I see “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and bumper stickers with sentiments like “Live Free or Die,” “Take Back America,” and “Fight Socialism.” All while living in a community that is essentially a monarchy.
You see, there is virtually no self-governing in The Villages. It is a metropolitan area of approximately 130,000 residents, with plans to eventually double in size. That would make it the fourth-largest city in Florida, behind Miami, Jacksonville, and Tampa—except The Villages is not a city. There is no mayor, no city council, no local police department, no central government agency. Virtually all aspects of The Villages are controlled, directly or indirectly, by a single family worth billions, now in its third generation.
The Villages is spread over three different counties, so no one county commission or other government agency has oversight for the entire complex. There is an organizational structure of “Development Districts,” which have elected resident members who determine important measures such as the size and number of signs you can put in your yard, and how far away your shrubs have to be from the street. In other words, a fancy name for your local property owners association. The law enforcement comes from the county sheriffs. Taxes are controlled by the county commissioners who, heretofore, have all been more or less in lockstep with the family of H. Gary Morse, the late architect of The Villages.
On the other hand, the infrastructure created by the family hegemony does a great job of keeping everybody happy. The grounds and streets are immaculate; the garbage is collected twice a week; there is free musical entertainment 365 nights a year; there are over fifty different golf courses and over one hundred local swimming pools and fitness centers; there are also restaurants aplenty, and the booze is cheap. Add in the lovely winter weather—the highs have been just above 70 degrees this week—and a 95 percent COVID vaccination rate, and The Villages is an incredible place to spend your day during a pandemic.
But it is not self-governing.
I am not arguing that The Villages system is wrong, or evil. But this kind of textbook benign dictatorship really is un-American, in the sense that this is not how matters in a large community are traditionally managed in the United States. In contrast, democracy is messy. No matter who wins an election, there is always a significant proportion of the population that is unhappy and wants to change things. Democracy could never produce or successfully maintain The Villages. The rules on yard signs would be changing every two years!
So what explains the vast difference between what those vociferous Villagers profess to believe and where and how they actually live their retirement lives? Is this a simple case of “Do as I say, not as I do”? Do they not see the irony of this situation? Or do they just not care as long as the drinks are 2-for-1 and the band plays “Sweet Home Alabama”?
I’m sorry. I don’t know the answer to that question just now; I’ll leave it to my psychology colleagues. I have a tee time waiting.