THE VILLAGES, Fla. — “Which side are you on?!”
A highly animated older gentleman named Ray-Ray is shouting in my ear, demanding to know my political orientation. “You still haven’t told us!”
I am tucked into the outdoor bar of City Fire, a popular watering hole in the Villages, the massive senior-living community in Central Florida that has gained notoriety as a MAGA stronghold. After a couple of cold, drizzly January days — very un-Villagelike, residents keep assuring me — people are eager to fraternize once more.
Inside, the restaurant is crowded, with patrons nodding along to the live music or cutting loose on the small dance floor. Outside, where heaters and plastic sheeting hold back the chill, folks are packed together watching golf on the TVs, taking advantage of the $3 happy-hour beer and swapping stories at top volume. It’s a boisterous crowd. Villagers, as the community’s 130,000 residents are known, tend to be an outgoing bunch. They are perpetually coming up to introduce themselves and then quiz you about yourself. These folks love a good party — and a good argument.
I’m talking with a small gaggle of veterans — all men, all supporters of former President Donald Trump — about voting rights and voting fraud. This is a hot topic in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has become a crusader for voting restrictions — or “guardrails,” as he calls them. It is also a topic with fresh relevance at the Villages, where four residents have been arrested in recent months on allegations of voting twice in the 2020 election. (Three of the four were registered Republicans.) Legally speaking, double voting is a no-no, the kind of fraud a certain former president and his followers might consider worth fretting about.
Not my City Fire companions. “You’re talking about four votes out of more than a hundred thousand people!” objects Ray-Ray. In fact, around the Villages, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than two to one, I haven’t run across many conservatives perturbed by the possible fraud in their midst. Some profess to know little if anything about the arrests. Others, like Ray-Ray and his buddy Marty, are fired up about voting fraud generally — just not the kind where a few of their neighbors may have done something careless or stupid.
To the contrary, these vets say they know what real fraud looks like. They hail from places like Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the cities, they say, are rife with electoral malfeasance, some of which they claim to have seen firsthand. (Marty insists Detroit is a disaster.) The piddling, isolated incidents that maybe happened here? Pfft. They could not care less. And the fact that I am asking about the issue tells them which team I root for in the great blood sport of American politics. As if being part of the Fake News media weren’t bad enough. The men have already warned me that there is a gun-toting regular whom I should avoid tonight if I don’t want trouble.
Marty and Ray-Ray are, of course, joking. Even in the midst of a political rant, the residents here are an overwhelmingly helpful, friendly bunch. That is, after all, the motto of this place, as trumpeted on the banners hanging all around the town squares: “The Villages: America’s Friendliest Hometown.”
But for many people, “friendly” is not the first word that springs to mind to describe the Villages. The conservative community has long been a campaign stop for G.O.P. politicians, but the rise of Trumpism dialed up the tribalism. The enclave became known as a hotbed of partisan brawling during the 2020 campaign. Public screaming matches erupted. Property was vandalized. Neighbors stopped speaking to one another. Mahjong groups and golf foursomes broke up. That summer, a video went viral of a Villager shouting “white power” during a golf-cart parade celebrating President Trump’s birthday. The episode introduced the Villages to the broader public — and not in a good way.
This senior Mecca — the nation’s largest — emerged from humble roots. In the early 1980s, H. Gary Morse, a onetime ad man, took over his father’s mobile home park in an unlovely patch of Florida cow country. (Some of the mobile units can still be seen in the northern end of the Villages, which residents euphemistically refer to as “the historic district.”) Mr. Morse soon realized that, to draw people to this landlocked region en masse, he needed to give them amenities — and lots of them. Soon followed the golf courses, swimming pools, shops, restaurants, movie theaters, sports facilities, rec centers (of which there are more than 100) and endless clubs (2,900-plus).
Today, the Villages isn’t so much a retirement community as an empire, a collection of dozens of neighborhoods covering more than 32 square miles spread over three counties, with the bulk in Sumter County. It boasts more than 60,000 households and is expanding. Fast. Dump trucks and excavators swarm the developing areas, and new buildings spring up practically overnight. Housing prices are out of control, gripe residents. (I checked out a lovely but modest home in the Village of Chitty Chatty that was priced around $460,000.) Thanks to the thousands of new Villagers who arrive each year, the Villages was the fastest growing metro area over the past decade.
The Villages’ bellicose politics has made it a subject of fascination (and horror) for many. But its portrayals as a MAGA circus miss the core of its appeal, especially among the tsunami of retiring baby boomers, who are aiming to redefine aging, much as they reshaped every aspect of the culture. Seniors don’t move to the Villages for the politics. They come for the golf and the pickleball, the softball and tennis and polo. They come for the concerts and casino nights and the Senior Games (think of them as a more mature Olympics). They come for Boozy Bingo at Lazy Mac’s Tacos, karaoke night at City Fire and the line dancing taught by a D.J. called Scooter.
Just ask the Democrats.
Judi Bessette is one of several members of the Villages Democratic Club who have gathered in the Tea Room of the Colony Cottage rec center to share the trials and tribulations of voting blue in this deep-red community. Ms. Bessette had her Biden flag vandalized during the campaign. Twice. The first flag lasted less than two weeks before it was torn and left hanging by a thread. She put up a new flag, only to have someone replace it with a Trump flag swiped from her neighbor’s place.
It’s not just conservative neighbors who make Democrats here uncomfortable. They grumble about the family-dominated enterprise that owns and controls so much of the Villages, which they refer to simply as The Developer. Mr. Morse, who died in 2014, had been a big-time Republican donor with formidable political clout in the region. Democrats complain that he and his heirs long sought to cultivate a conservative climate here. TV sets in the shops and hotels are typically turned to Fox News. Along with local programming, Fox News Radio plays in outdoor spaces. Democrats dismiss the community paper, The Villages Daily Sun, as a propaganda machine for The Developer, which owns it and other media properties. And during election season, say the Democrats, The Developer makes office space available for the Republicans but can’t seem to find space for their team.
To keep the peace in their daily lives, people of all partisan persuasions learn to keep their political views to themselves in mixed company. “I run a book club,” says Laura Goudreau, “and our No. 1 rule is: nothing political.”
“If I were to not talk to any Republicans, then I wouldn’t have many acquaintances,” says Mike Faulk, the Democratic club’s president, who notes that, in his golf group of 16, he is the only Democrat. Chris Stanley, the immediate past president of the Democratic club, says she gets asked why on earth a Democrat would want to live in the Villages all the time. Her answer: Because life here is amazing, and she loves it.
Dancing is very big in the Villages. Line dancing, two-stepping, twisting, awkward head-bopping — the moment the music starts, Villagers go at it with abandon. Here is a place where the over-55 set can cut loose, flaunting their Jagger-esque moves without being judged by younger, more limber folks.
“I came to party!” a snowbird named Jim quips to me at City Fire. (Yes. I spent a lot of time there, and I highly recommend karaoke night.) Having raised four daughters back home in Pennsylvania, Jim spends his winters here, enjoying the fruits of his labor. He was not the only Villager to express this sentiment. These people have made their contribution to society and now intend to have themselves some fun.
The enclave has been called Disney for retirees. The comparison is apt, not only because of the nonstop amusements. Its entire aesthetic is too studied and precious to feel like the real world. The three quaint town squares and main retail areas were developed around themes: Spanish Springs, Lake Sumter Landing and Brownwood Paddock. The streets and public areas are spotless and beautifully landscaped. And everywhere you look, there are golf carts.
Golf carts are key to understanding the Villages. There are over 90 miles of cart paths here, and it is a point of pride that every corner of the community is cart accessible. The vehicles are an expression of residents’ individuality and independence. People are serious about tricking out their rides. They paint them with flames, name them and plaster them with bumper stickers. Those with money to burn splurge on carts that look like vintage autos. Even seniors who have no business driving anymore zip around like teenage joy riders, say residents. Crashes are not uncommon, and visitors are warned to watch out for bad drivers — and drunk ones. One afternoon during my visit, Marsha Shearer, a board member for the Democratic club, emails that a friend and fellow board member had witnessed a doozy of a wreck by what appeared to be a highly intoxicated driver. “She was also an anti-vaxxer and a very belligerent Trumper who kept screaming over and over again ‘I’m not vaccinated’” and cursing President Biden, the friend, Sue Dubman, reported. The police eventually came to deal with the mess.
Golf cart parades are part of the culture. Villagers use any excuse to organize one: Christmas, Halloween, the start of a big Supreme Court case, delivering their ballots to the polling station. Andy Kleiman considers the parades the most fun part of the local political life. “You go by and see all these people giving you the thumbs up,” he beams. Of course, you’re likely to get other fingers waved at you as well.
It is easy to mock all the clubs and events as boomer hedonism mixed with golden-years YOLO nihilism. Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow you may get diagnosed with shingles or need a double hip replacement! And the frenzied socializing can definitely veer in that direction. Residents mentioned that alcohol abuse is a real problem here. And for years, the community has fought its reputation (based in part on a 2008 book) as a den of sexual iniquity, where seniors get jiggy in golf carts and S.T.D.s run rampant. Many Villagers are definitely on the hunt for companionship, and the men are quick with the offer to buy a gal a drink. (At City Fire, you can send over a poker chip for someone to use as a drink token.) The surreal effect of living in a bubble where everyone is encouraged to act as if on perpetual holiday was a focus of the 2020 documentary “Some Kind of Heaven,” co-produced by The Times.
But the parades and games and clubs, most definitely the political ones, also give people a sense of belonging and purpose — of still being able to make a difference. Whatever their ideological persuasion, residents are constantly reminded that civic engagement matters. That they matter. Like at all retirement communities, the social life at the Villages tackles head-on the scourges of isolation, despair and loneliness that are eating away at so many Americans as the nation’s social fabric frays. In a culture that can feel as though it is leaving seniors behind, the Villages is designed to bring people together. And despite the at times harrowing political warfare, the community largely succeeds in doing so — even if it isn’t always easy.
People here feel responsible for one another. Marty Schneider — of Marty and Ray-Ray — is a longstanding member of the Band of Brothers, a group of mostly Vietnam-era vets founded over a decade ago to, as Mr. Schneider puts it, “give veterans who were having trouble somewhere to go.” People were really struggling and some died by suicide, he recalls. What began as a small gathering on Tuesday afternoons at City Fire has morphed into a 501(c)3 organization with several hundred members that puts together social outings (bowling, golf…) and community events and holds weekly raffles and other fund-raisers to support veterans and related causes. When the weather permits, the Tuesday social features a drive-by from a member who tricked out a golf cart like a tank. With a nod to “the ladies” who have joined, Mr. Schneider says the group recently discussed whether to change the name to the Band of Brothers and Sisters. “So that’s a possibility down the road.”
The central problem, of course, is that this sense of belonging may flow as much from who is not a part of the Villages as who is. The populace here is 98 percent white, putting it increasingly out of touch with the broader nation. The entire place, in fact, has a time-warped quality. It is reminiscent of college or summer camp — but for people who no longer have to worry about what they’re going to be when they grow up or what their political choices will bring. For Villagers, the future is less of a concern than living their best life. Right. Now. Here, baby boomers still reign supreme, in a place that caters to some of their most self-absorbed, self-indulgent impulses. The culture, like the overwhelmingly conservative politics, can feel like a scrupulously maintained bulwark against the onslaught of time and change.
In this way, the community is a distillation of the cultural crosscurrents at play in an America that is simultaneously graying and diversifying. Baby boomers, long accustomed to setting the agenda, are being eased out of their slot atop the sociopolitical ladder — especially conservative, white boomers. This shift can be painful. One of Donald Trump’s shrewdest political moves has been to exploit some people’s nostalgia for a bygone era where the cultural hierarchy was clear and the world made sense. The Villages works overtime to maintain a replica of that fantasyland — a shiny, happy, small-town bubble where seniors can tune out the rest of the world and party like it’s 1969.
Surrounded by people at a similar life stage, many with similar values, Villagers can maintain a distance from the demographic and cultural changes reshaping the nation and from many of its more intractable problems. Crime, inequality, homelessness, climate change, racial strife, the high cost of child care and college — these are challenges for other communities to grapple with. Other generations even. Big Government is eyed with skepticism, even as the aging populace commands an increasingly larger chunk of the federal budget for programs such as Social Security and Medicare. So long as taxes stay low and the golf courses stay open, Villagers can stay focused on living the dream. They have earned this retreat, dammit. The escapism is the point. And escapism, by definition, means separating oneself from unsettling trends and people.
Early one evening, I settle in near the Sumter Landing bandstand to watch the Hooligans, a local favorite that plays all the classics — Pink Floyd, the Clash, the Police, Rod Stewart. At one point, a trim, relatively young woman sporting short dark hair and a golf visor wanders over to ask if I’m the band’s agent, noting that I look very official sitting there with my notebook. After quizzing me about who I work for and what I’m working on, she introduces herself succinctly: “Brenda. Strong conservative and strong Christian.” She and her husband are snowbirds visiting from Minnesota, spending their second winter in the Villages. They love it here. Except … Brenda has noticed a distinct lack of diversity, and she’s not entirely sure if that’s an OK thing. On the other hand, she adds, “it feels safe,” because “anyone here who doesn’t belong stands out.”
And with that, she drifts back into the sea of seniors swaying as the band belts out Radiohead’s “Creep”: “What the hell am I doin’ here? I don’t belong here. …”