When an elderly man was filmed shouting “white power” while driving through America’s largest retirement community on a golf cart, it was the latest installment of a culture war Chris Stanley had watched unfold for years.
“Battle lines are drawn,” Stanley, who serves as president of The Villages Democratic Club in the enormous town geared toward well-kempt retirees in central Florida, told The Daily Beast.
But the scene—which was amplified when President Donald Trump approvingly tweeted it before deleting the post this weekend—marked a sharp deterioration from just a few years ago, Stanley explained. In fact, political relations were relatively friendly until Trump’s election.
“We coexisted happily,” she said. “We had our club, they had their club. They had their speakers, we would occasionally get a speaker.”
A massive 55-and-over community in Florida, The Villages is a longtime Republican stronghold. Donald Trump carried 70 percent of the vote in the area in 2016, the expanding town amounting to a sort of baby boomer rebuttal to the much-hyped idea of waning political power among elderly white people in America.
But conversations with residents suggest Trump’s election brought a surge in hostilities that has boiled over in recent months. The president’s tweet this past weekend—of one of his supporters yelling the racist phrase during dueling political rallies at The Villages—showed how far relations have degraded.
“Now anywhere we go, they’re waiting for us,” Stanley told The Daily Beast.
Tensions came to a now-infamous head on June 14. One demonstration, a large golf-cart rally, was composed of Trump supporters celebrating the president’s birthday (some also had other messages like “blue lives matter” on their carts). Counterprotesters carried Black Lives Matter signs.
During the rally, Democrat Sharon Sandler told the Villages-News that left-leaning life was hard in the area.
“I can’t stand Trump. I think he is a pervert. I think these people are part of a cult and brainwashed,” Sandler said in a video on the outlet’s site. “This is really bad living here. Thank God we all have friends and we stick together, but it’s very hard living in the Villages as a Democrat and not a Trump supporter.”
In the same video, someone shouted “Where’s your white hood?” at a passing caravan of Trump supporters in golf carts.
“White power!” one of the Trump fans shouted back. The Villages-News reported that a fight almost broke out.
Stanley said the event was “upsetting at the time, then it died down.” But it erupted into the public consciousness this weekend after Trump tweeted the footage.
The retweet was “of no benefit to anybody,” Stanley said. “I understand [Trump] took it down after 90 minutes. People said he wasn’t aware the guy said ‘white power,’ which leaves us with: He either retweets things he hasn’t watched, or he knew it said ‘white power’ and that’s the part he was interested in. I tend to think it’s the latter.”
Turns out no one in The Villages wants to take credit for the “white power” guy.
The Villages administration did not immediately return a request for comment. The Villages Republican Club—which also did not return requests for comment for this story—has disavowed the shouter.
“The Republican Club condemns the person who shouted ‘White Power’ at the foul-mouthed Biden supporter in the video being widely circulated in the news today,” the group posted on Facebook. “Everyone we have spoken to was very surprised to see such a racist statement here, because this is indeed ‘America’s Friendliest Hometown,’ where everyone is pretty much blind to color.” (Claims to racial “color-blindness,” psychologists say, are effectively bogus.)
A “Team Trump” Facebook page for the Villages that heavily promoted the pro-Trump rally made no such public disavowal. Spokeswoman Suzanne Days said she hadn’t felt any pressure to, since this reporter was “the first person who called me.”
Days said she hadn’t seen the encounter, and thought it was a “real freak situation” that did not represent the atmosphere of the protest.
Stanley conceded that the video “is not representative of a large part of the Villages.”
“It is sadly representative of some parts,” she said.
Some of the political tensions Stanley and Sandler alluded to play out online. The Villages has a colossal discussion forum with more than 100,000 members. But—in a sign of tenuous peace-keeping—political discussion has become increasingly verboten on the site. The site previously relegated all political discussion to its own sub-forum until the end of 2017. But on New Year’s Day 2018, the site took the sub-forum offline, citing technical upgrades. Although the move was described as temporary, the politics space never returned. And good riddance, some forum veterans said.
“True civil political discourse was very rare,” one person posted in a thread asking where the politics forum had gone, adding that the page “was a stain on this site… it is better left deleted.”
The site’s ban on politics talk outside the politics channel held, and moderators have since posted updates reminding people not to say anything political on the site. (Discussions of race and COVID-19 and the occasional conspiracy theory unavoidably enter those waters.)
Sometimes the online animosity leaks into the real world. Earlier this year, another Trump opponent in The Villages, Ed McGinty, made headlines after launching a golf-cart protest of his own, driving around in a vehicle laden with anti-Trump signs.
But late last year, the Democratic Club planned a golf-cart rally to kick off election season when things took an ominous turn.
The Democratic Club’s opponents, Stanley said, “were posting publicly about laying in wait for us and dropping roofing nails on the golf cart rally. They were posting publicly about ‘we’ll stand on the bridge and drop rotten tomatoes on them. We’ll throw roofing nails down.’ That went on for about 20 minutes until one of them said, ‘Wait, we use that golf-cart path, too. That might hurt our golf carts.’”
Comments on a local news site, reviewed by The Daily Beast, showed people talking about needing “additional trackers,” apparently to monitor the Democratic Club rally. “We now expect these lefties to have 18 carts in their YUGE caravan,” the person wrote, adding the address of a home where the club was expected to return. “We have dropped 175 roofing nails on the trail.” (Though the site was targeted at Villages residents, anyone can make an account and comment.)
Another commenter repeated the call for nails, while a third urged people to “egg the golf carts.”
The Democratic Club did not encounter nails. But “when we got to our destination, they were there,” Stanley said. “They were laying in wait for us with foul signs and name-calling and threatening gestures. It was ugly. It was very ugly.”
A still-live Facebook post by the Republican Club encouraged people to protest at the Democratic Club rally, citing a post from a private, pro-Trump Villagers group.
“That’s what life is like for us now in the Villages,” Stanley said. “I hope that starting Nov. 4, things get better.”