There has always been a low-boil tension in The Villages retirement community between the Republican majority and the much smaller cohort of Democrats, but a veneer of good manners in “Florida's Friendliest Hometown" mostly prevailed on golf courses and at bridge tables.
Those tensions, though, flared two weeks ago during a golf-cart parade for President Donald Trump's birthday in which a man shouted, “White Power,” when confronted by anti-Trump protesters. A video clip of that confrontation in America’s largest retirement community was tweeted approvingly by Trump last weekend and then taken down.
Some residents say they've never seen anything like the politically inspired hostilities that have surfaced over the past several months.
“It's like a powder keg here," said resident Alan Stone. “And Trump is just stirring the pot."
In the past, when conflicting political views came up in The Villages, residents said it was best to say, “I disagree,” and quickly change the topic. But the emphasis on good manners has been tested like never before in recent months with the spread of the new coronavirus, the resulting stock market gyrations for a population that largely lives off retirement investments, the presidential race and the calls for racial justice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“This has been brewing. Most people kind of agree not to discuss politics ... and it had been accepted that with things being so divisive, you don’t get into it,” said Catherine Hardy, chair of the Sumter County Democratic Party.
The Villages' population of more than 120,000 residents — among the fastest growing areas in the U.S. in the past decade — is about 98% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are more than twice as many registered Republicans as registered Democrats in Sumter County, where most of The Villages is located.
The Trump parade occurred June 14 in the planned community immediately after a vigil was held by an African American philanthropic group to honour Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Most of the attendees at the vigil had left by the start of the Trump parade, although a white woman wearing “Black Lives Matter" on her shirt shouted profanities at the Trump supporters as they drove by in golf carts. A man driving by in a golf car responded by shouting, “White Power," a racist slogan associated with white supremacists.
“Most people, up until now, even if people felt that way, it was socially unacceptable to voice it," Hardy said of the man's remark. "The difference is under Trump, you can spew that hatred. What has changed is now it’s more acceptable."
The political partisanship can now be seen in the most mundane places, said Ira Friedman, who with his wife, Ellen, have volunteered for Democratic presidential candidates during their 18 years in The Villages.
“Go to the postal station and see people picking up their mail. If they're wearing a mask, they're Democrats. If they're not wearing a mask, talking to each other, bumping into each other, they're Republicans," Friedman said.
The flare-up at the Trump parade doesn’t represent the vast majority of residents of The Villages, although with the election year, there are some people, “who are exercised" and are becoming more vocal in expressing their views, said John Calandro, chairman of the Sumter County Republican Party.
Because of the coronavirus, more residents than usual are staying at home and watching the news, rather than going to the retirement haven’s famous happy hours and dances in its town squares, he said.
Some residents worry that the tensions of the past few months may make retirees think twice about moving to The Villages, whose founders have been longtime donors to Republicans and GOP presidential candidates. The Villages is often a popular campaign stop for GOP national and statewide candidates.
“I don't think The Villages wants this kind of publicity," Stone said. “People are saying, ‘What the hell is going on in The Villages?'"
But Calandro said any dissension among residents is overblown.
Calandro said when he plays golf with his Democratic friends, the biggest fights they get into aren't about politics — they're about who gets to take an extra putt on the green without being penalized.
“We aren't having arguments on every street corner here," Calandro said. “The Villages is still The Villages. We worked all of our lives to live here, and it’s a great place to live.”