It promotes itself as “Florida’s friendliest hometown”, a retirement playground where seniors while away their golden years in a carefree world of golf and swimming, fine dining, drinking, and nightly line dances in the village square.
But one reckless and controversial retweet from Donald Trump, featuring some ugly racism from a resident in a golf cart, and The Villages’ carefully crafted image as a peaceful utopia for retirees began to dissipate. As elderly white voters, one of Trump’s key voting blocs in 2016, show signs of abandoning the erratic president, some are even wondering if the door has been opened for Democrats here, an area that until now has been unashamedly “Trump country”.
“He’s definitely turning off some of the older voters in The Villages,” said Chris Stanley, president of the Democratic Club in the 32-square mile retirement community of 125,000, and a resident herself for almost six years.
“They’re concerned about his plans for Medicare and social security of course, but they also didn’t allow their children to behave like this, they don’t allow their grandchildren to behave like this, and they’re very much turned off by it.
“This is the generation that watched Walter Cronkite, had John F Kennedy, and Eisenhower, when politics was a whole different animal. When even if your party or your chosen candidate didn’t win, you were never afraid of damage done to your family or your country. And now? Whoever thought we’d see something like it is right now?”
The resident captured on the video yelling “White power! White power!” at a demonstrator was taking part in a parade of golf carts, the preferred mode of transport in The Villages, organised by Villagers for Trump, a rightwing group of residents that claims a membership of 2,000.
Although the group has distanced itself from the comment and asserted the person is not a member, there are other allegations of the president’s more fervent supporters behaving badly.
Golf carts bearing signs for the Democratic party or Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptive opponent in November, have been vandalised, Stanley says. Pre-pandemic gatherings of Democrats were assailed by residents hurling insults; pro-Democratic golf cart rallies have received social media threats of participants being pelted with rotten tomatoes or roofing nails left on trailways. And there are also tales of villagers leaving bags of dog excrement in the carts of those with differing political views.
“It’s very hostile,” Stanley says. “Even on Facebook, you’re a libtard, you’re a demon-rat. It’s a constant barrage of hate.”
Stanley, who has helped to marshal teams of Democratic volunteers for phone banking and mailing campaign flyers while the coronavirus pandemic prevents traditional door-to-door stumping, is under no illusions about the challenge in November.
Trump carried the three conservative Florida counties that incorporate The Villages – Lake, Sumter and Marion – by more than 115,000 votes in 2016. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a margin of more than two to one.
Yet Stanley also believes that Trump’s agenda of marginalising minorities has disenchanted plenty of voters in The Villages, where 98.3% of residents are white and 80% are older than 65, according to US census figures.
“Many are grandparents who have multiracial grandchildren, gay grandchildren,” Stanley said. “These are people in their 70s and 80s who lived through a difficult time in American history, desegregation of schools, the civil rights era … and are now seeing the reverse steps. That concerns them more than the threat to Medicare and social security.”
Her evidence? Increasing numbers of residents she says are calling to offer help and support: “fence-sitters here, there and everywhere; people who voted Trump in 2016 for whatever reason; people turned off by the vitriol he spews all day long”.
Dee Melvin, an air force veteran who moved to The Villages in 2014 with her husband, has also witnessed a darkening of the political skies since Trump’s election.
“Politically, it’s no longer America’s friendliest hometown. It gets tougher every day,” she said.
“When we moved here I honestly didn’t realise there was strife going on politically. Even in 2016 it wasn’t unbearable, but this cycle, since 2016, it gets worse and worse.”
The atmosphere of hostility, she said, was the reason she decided to run for a seat in Florida’s house of representatives to represent The Villages, though she faces an uphill battle in November against Republican incumbent Brett Hage, elected in 2018 with 69.5% of the vote.
“I’ve never been politically involved. I don’t always agree with Republicans, but honestly this is the first time ever that I’ve felt like someone is trying to tear our country apart and doing it on purpose,” she said.
“I have Republican friends I know will vote for me. I have friends who were Republican and are now no-party-affiliated. There’s a difference between a true Republican and a Trump supporter. They’re two completely different people.”
Republican supporters, meanwhile, don’t see the kind of backlash against Trump that others are predicting, even though they acknowledge the white power video was “embarrassing”.
“Yes, he’s very popular down here, and I think he’ll run well for a variety of reasons,” said John Calandro, a former chair of the Sumter county Republican party.
“He likes us, he’s been here, it’s good, solid conservative country. We will turn out on a per capita basis probably the highest percentage of voters in any county in the state. These are people who know what they believe and express what they believe through the way they vote.”
As for the video, Calandro believes “some people are trying to make more of it than it really is.
“That’s embarrassing to all of us because it’s not who the Villagers are [but] remember there were husbands with wives in their carts, listening to the taunts, and this guy responded to it. You have seven seconds in a video. If you look at the minutes after that, of the 600 carts, there’s probably 60 or 70 carts roll by and they either ignore the taunts or wave and laugh.”
Stanley, the Democratic club official, however, does not buy into the “rogue racist” theory.
“Before, the people weren’t as openly hateful, but now they have carte blanche to behave like this because of the president,” she said.
“Outside the third grade I have never known anybody like that. It’s not quite the retirement I had planned.”