The #Resistance and the Retirement Community

Inside the Villages in Florida, where election tensions are at an all-time high.

Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine
Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine
Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine

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Almost every afternoon for the past three and a half years, a retired septuagenarian named Ed McGinty has ventured out of his little beige ranch house to troll his community’s vast population of Trump supporters. McGinty resides in the Villages, a sprawling central Florida retirement utopia that sells itself as “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.” He drives for hours, cutting through the humid afternoon, taking in the scents of Spanish moss and sprinkler water, in a golf cart plastered with anti-Trump signs: MAY DONALD TRUMP BURN IN HELL STARTING TODAY and DONALD TRUMP IS WHITE TRASH and FLUSH THE TURD ON NOVEMBER 3RD. McGinty is tall with ruddy cheeks, clear eyes, and strawberry-blond hair bleached by the years, his demeanor all hard feelings and bad attitude. “If you saw my face when I talk to Trump supporters, I  turn into a fucking animal,” he tells me. “I dare them, ‘If you hit me, you’re leaving in an ambulance.’ ” During his expeditions, he positions his cart at an angle on the parkway, lending maximum visibility to his bold-font provocations, and passes the time in a nearby lawn chair. He is known to wear a novelty T-shirt that depicts a naked Donald Trump posed like a frisky little doll on Vladimir Putin’s lap.

“My mother taught me never to say I hate anybody, so I would say that I am ‘saturated with animosity’ for Trump. My objections aren’t just political; they’re moral,” McGinty says. “I have two daughters estranged because they’re married to Trump supporters.” He and his wife migrated to the Villages from the Philadelphia suburbs five years ago to play golf. There are more than 50 courses on campus. “For 36 years, I wasn’t politically anything,” says McGinty, who spent his career working in real estate. “I was an independent. I didn’t broadcast my beliefs because that was better for business.” Following Trump’s inauguration, McGinty resolved to give the president a chance but abandoned the experiment after only a month and started wearing a WARREN ball cap. “I’m walking the dogs one morning and my neighbor tells me if I continue wearing that kind of apparel, I’d better keep up my health insurance,” he recalls. “I wasn’t going to let them intimidate me.”

Winning Florida is crucial for Democrats this fall. If the state calls for Biden on Election Night, it’s a lot harder to imagine Democrats’ nightmare scenarios — Trump refusing to concede and a postelection legal battle that would make Bush v. Gore look tame by comparison — coming to fruition. So while it may not be the swingiest state this time around, it’s no wonder that Mike Bloomberg has pledged to dump $100 million into the Florida race.

Villagers, with a population that’s 98 percent white, overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016. Though Democrats are outnumbered more than two-to-one by Republicans, they still try to organize. They register voters, host Biden-Harris golf-cart parades; canvass for candidates in the communities outside the Villages, and volunteer at polling places. With some polls finding that senior-citizen support for Trump has waned alongside the rising COVID-19 death count, Democrats have the newfound zeal of a beaten-down superminority becoming a simple minority. They even have a candidate for state assembly this cycle — a retired Air Force veteran named Dee Melvin.

The Villages is located an hour from Orlando, 115,000 boomers populating a 32-square-mile sprawl of golf courses, beige built-to-order ranch homes, and rec-center swimming pools. On my first visit there in 2014, I saw the attraction. It is all lush green grass, vibrant sunsets, and happy hours starting at 11 a.m., a seamless modulation between semi-luxurious retirement theme park and actual community. There are more than 2,500 social and extracurricular clubs, and they are well attended. You can become a cheerleader, a triathlete, a writer, a golf pro, a painter, a pickleball star. At its core, the Villages is all about invented narrative: You can spend your retirement becoming the you that you’ve always imagined — with prices starting in the low six figures.

Of course, nobody can escape the past. Everybody comes from someplace else, bringing with them the burden of their life experiences and their own personal politics, which become magnified by the setting and a solipsism fostered by the whatever-makes-you-happy ethos. Two members of the police in neighboring Fruitland Park were, not too long ago, exposed for an association with the Ku Klux Klan. Every aspect of life in the Villages is lorded over by a developer who utilizes his considerable power to enforce order, traditional values, and a stridently Republican worldview. And in the age of Trump, residents feel emboldened to fly Confederate flags on their carts, cars, and homes and to plant little white crosses in their lawns that, neighbors say, “announce that this place is Christian and this place is white.”

The enmity between Republicans and Democrats has reached a rolling boil. On September 3, a resident named Shirley Schantz published an op-ed on Villages News, a local alternative news blog, under the title “Reasons I Am Afraid to Live in the Villages,” detailing the disturbing behavior she has witnessed this political season: “Beer poured on the seat of a cart. Upside-down flag torn off a flagpole. Flagpole taken off a house and broken. Cars keyed. Campaign sign on car taken off and torn.” “My letter was a call for civility,” Schantz, a Democrat, says. “I should be able to express myself without fearing that my property is going to be vandalized.”

But not every Democrat in the Villages is content to go high when her Republican neighbors go low. McGinty and a crew of geriatric resistance warriors are disturbing the peace in this MAGA promised land. His backup has included a retired crisis counselor from Hartford, a corporate auto executive, and a flight attendant from Dallas. Their mission: Venting their anger. Resisting silence. Letting other Villages liberals, who may be in hiding for fear of being exposed and ostracized, know they don’t have to be afraid. Helping Biden win.

Ed McGinty’s favorite signs. Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine.
Ed McGinty’s favorite signs. Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine.

Just before 1 p.m. on June 14, McGinty and a crowd of fellow Democrats showed up at Lake Sumter Landing, one of the town squares, to attend a vigil for George Floyd. For months, almost everybody had been in lockdown: drinking too much at socially distanced cul-de-sac happy hours; alienated from friends and family; marooned in Facebook and Fox News and MSNBC echo chambers, convictions hardening. The vigil was an opportunity for Black Lives Matter supporters to meet in person and mourn. But a Fox News broadcast blaring on the outdoor speakers at a nearby Red Sauce, a favorite restaurant of Trumpers, disrupted their moment of reflection. The staff refused requests to quiet the speakers, and the broadcast made it difficult to follow the organizers’ message. The vigil coincidentally fell on President Trump’s birthday, and word circulated that Trump fans had planned a golf-cart parade in the president’s honor for 2 p.m.

When the vigil wrapped up at 1:40, a handful of the Democrats decided to stick around, looking for a run-in with the Trump supporters. They included Sharon Sandler, a former crisis counselor for at-risk teens. “I love the confrontation,” she tells me. “I’ve been married to an asshole lawyer for 46 years.” Sandler had been protesting a few days a week, sometimes with McGinty, frequently on her own. She would park the on median and yell anti-Trump slogans as Villagers pulled in and out of the Winn-Dixie parking lot. Watching Black Lives Matter protests unfold across the country, Sandler felt compelled to scream. “I lost a child,” she says. “When I see videos of Black men on the ground, gasping for air, calling for their mothers, it kills me.” The indecency of the Red Sauce staff blaring Fox News on this somber occasion made Sandler want to go nuclear.

Sandler, McGinty, and Casey Marr, a retired auto executive, distributed signs to any Democrats who wanted them. Marr saw antagonizing the parade as an opportunity for revenge: Last year, Villages Democrats staged a golf-cart parade in front of GOP congressman Daniel Webster’s on-campus annex. Marr and his compatriots endeavored to deliver a petition endorsing Trump’s impeachment. However, they were intercepted by a horde of hostile Trump supporters. “They screamed obscenities at us,” Marr recalls. “They called us ‘baby killers’ and ‘communists.’ If you’re going to do it to us, we’re going to do it to you.”

Just before 2 p.m., the Democrats took up positions along the side of the street. Marr and Sandler both described experiencing a heavy flush of adrenaline as the rumble of golf-cart engines and celebratory horn blowing grew louder. The approaching golf carts were festooned with American flags, Trump-campaign signs, and silver pinwheels. Wearing oversize black shades and a loose black sweater that fell off her shoulder, Sandler leaned in close to each approaching cart and growled, “Fuuuck Trump.” Republican women waved dismissively while their pruny husbands, all decked out in Trump hats and American-flag golf sets, retorted, “You’ll be crying on November the third” and “Find another country.”

Sandler responded with “Nazi racist pigs!” and “Fucking turd!” The parade followed a short route around Lake Sumter Landing. The Villages Daily Sun estimated several hundred golf carts had participated. A Democrat named Katie Hiland, a Federal Bureau of Prisons executive, stepped in the road, causing traffic to bottleneck. A man in a VETERANS FOR TRUMP T-shirt moved her out of the way. Then Sandler jumped in front of the cart and got knocked backward.

Marr asked a Trump supporter in a silver golf cart, “Where’s your white hood?” The man in the cart pumped a fist and shouted enthusiastically, “That’s right! White power! White power!” A reporter from the Villages News caught the scene in its entirety on video.

After the parade, Sandler returned home and got on with her evening. “I thought the whole thing was over,” she says. The next morning, the video hit the internet. And, to Sandler’s horror, the Villages Democrats seemed just as mad at her as they were at the Villages Republicans. McGinty called to discuss some urgent business. “All these Democrats are saying the ‘video is horrible’ and that we ‘aren’t going to change anybody’s vote,’ ” Sandler recalls him saying. “Of course we weren’t changing minds,” she says. “We either got a thumbs up or a ‘Fuck you!’ I didn’t say anything at the parade that Ed doesn’t say every day on his cart.” McGinty told Sandler she was no longer welcome to park with him for golf-cart protests. After that, “I felt like if I hid under the covers for a while, it’d all go away. It was only Villages News. Then bango! Trump retweets it.”

Hundreds of star-spangled Villagers attend pro-Trump golf-cart parades. Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine.
Hundreds of star-spangled Villagers attend pro-Trump golf-cart parades. Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine.

Spend any kind of time in the Villages and you’re guaranteed to meet somebody who made the trip down to check the place out and wound up impulse-purchasing a home. Happens all the time. That’s how Sandler wound up in Florida, in 2010, after a long career as a caseworker for teens in crisis at a special-needs high school in Hartford. “I have been fighting for inner-city kids for decades,” she says. “I gravitate toward the underdogs.” Investigating the political makeup of the Villages never occurred to her. That sort of diligence didn’t feel necessary — the rift between left and right surely existed in 2010, but with Trump, she says, hostility compels her to stash a can of pepper spray and a Taser in her golf cart. She says Trumpism is a “cult.” It “feels like we’re in a civil war, and it scares me to death.”

But politics has always mattered. The area is such a valuable electoral prize that Joe Biden’s campaign has cut two ads featuring residents explaining why the former vice-president has their vote. McCain and Bush campaigned here. Sean Hannity has taped here. The local Barnes & Noble is a mandatory stop for Republicans on book tours. (When Roger Stone showed up to raise money for his legal defense on April Fools’ Day in 2019, McGinty sat right outside with a sign: TRUMP AND STONE FOR ATTICA 2022.) “People are very political here,” says Chris Stanley, president of the Villages Democrats club. “They might not have been when they got here. But Fox News is piped into the town squares and stores. Every 20 minutes, you’re getting Fox News updates. It’s subliminal, and it’s constant.”

H. Gary Morse, the mysterious billionaire developer who created the community and the Villages holding company, was one of the nation’s top Republican donors. While serving as Florida co-chairman for the Romney campaign in 2012, Morse pressured Villages employees into making contributions. After Gary Morse passed away in October 2014, his son, Mark Morse, now in control of the Villages holding company, continued giving generously to GOP candidates and PACs. (A spokesman for the Villages declined to comment on the Morse family’s political connections, the company’s employee policies, or anything else in this story.)

The Morse family has controlled everything in the community: the hotels, the newspaper, the radio station, the banks, the hospitals, the mortgage and insurance companies, the real-estate corporation, golf-cart dealerships, trash-collection companies, and construction companies. They are landlords to dozens of restaurants and retailers spread over hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space. They operate the charter school that Gary Morse built in the 1990s to educate the offspring of Villages employees. It has been reported that, in 2017, the Villages holding company circulated a memo on “Life Without Immigrants Day,” demanding the names of workers who skipped work so they could be added to a list of “radical individuals” ineligible for employment. The same reporting noted that, in 2018, management threatened to expel any student at the Villages charter school who walked out of class for the March for Our Lives gun-control rally after the Parkland mass shootings. The Villages Democrats say that when they tried to rent office space on campus, they were told the office wasn’t suitable for political use. Later, they say they found out the Villages rented the same exact space to the Republican club. For years, liberal-leaning residents have complained about being spit on, vandalized, threatened, harassed, and ostracized. You lose your place in a golf foursome. Your conservative pals say they can’t be friends with you anymore.

For Sandler, the two weeks following the video’s release on the Villages News website “were torturous.” Up until then, Sandler had maintained a full social slate. In addition to the Villages Democrats club, she attended meetings for the League of Liberal Ladies and a support group for parents who have lost children. She often met a group of liberal Villagers at a dog park not far from her house, where she would rehash Trump’s daily outrages with neighbors while her two schnauzers mixed it up with the rest of the pups. All but her most staunchly liberal friends slipped away, Sandler says. She caught hard looks in the grocery store. After posting a request on the local neighborhood listserv for the name of a contractor skilled at refinishing floors, she received a chilling response: “So this is the now infamous Sharon Sandler. Maybe best to keep a low profile.” She received hate mail. Someone splattered red paint all over her driveway. “They were mad at me for exposing the dirty little secret that this place is racist,” says Sandler. “They made me feel like they wanted me out of there.”

When Trump amplified the birthday-parade confrontation on June 28, the community shook. “Thank you to the great people of The Villages,” the president tweeted, along with a version of the “white power” video, just in time for the Sunday-morning talk shows. On CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, the only Black senator in the Republican conference, called the clip “indefensible.” Trump removed it a few hours later. His spokesperson claimed Trump didn’t hear the man shout the offensive phrase. The clip hijacked an entire news cycle. The Villages Republicans and Villagers for Trump publicly condemned the comments, but the aftershock lingered for months.

After Trump’s tweet, Sandler’s name, address, and phone number appeared online. She received more hate mail but says she also got calls from people urging her to keep fighting. She received fan letters. People sent bottles of wine. A woman from Australia called to voice her support. When the Washington Post ran an item about the altercation and Sandler’s “profanity-laced screaming match,” one commenter reported that Sandler is infamous around campus for filling her purse at buffets and not cleaning up after her dog at the dog park. (“What? That’s nasty,” Sandler responded. “But as I said, there are people that don’t like me.”) The push-pull continued for weeks. “People stop me and whisper, ‘We’re with you!’ But they’re afraid to open their mouths,” she says.

At the same time, Sandler’s 99-year-old mother, far away in Connecticut, began to fail. She missed her children; Florida’s status as a COVID hot spot quelled their desires to visit. Sandler isn’t shy about telling people she’s tough, but all of it — the election, the pandemic, the video, the family tribulations — became too much. In mid-August, she packed up her pets and drove back to Hartford. Upon arriving, she discovered that her husband had moved out. She cared for her mother most days and finally got to see her kids. But in no time, she began to feel a need to return. “I absolutely have to be there before the election,” she says. She will go back to Florida to vote, and she wants to make sure her Democrat neighbors show up at the polls. But after November, she’s not so sure. “They want their own Republican enclave. They want their own little cult.”

The Democrats compensate for their smaller numbers with big signs. Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine.
The Democrats compensate for their smaller numbers with big signs. Photo: Colby Katz for New York Magazine.

On the evening of June 28, hours after the parade video went viral, Roger Stokes, 72, a retired firefighter from South Florida, had just arrived in Georgia with his girlfriend, Cindy, for a white-water-rafting excursion when a friend called to alert Stokes that he’d been identified on social media as the man shouting “White power!” from behind the steering wheel of a golf cart. The next morning, Stokes’s former employer, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, condemned him, and by that afternoon, the Miami Herald — without reaching Stokes for comment or confirmation — identified him as the culprit.

But Stokes hadn’t attended the parade. He and Cindy had spent the afternoon at home before heading into town for an early cocktail and dinner around 4:30 p.m. He looks nothing like the man in the video, aside from being another white-haired white guy. Stokes, a registered Republican, isn’t a member of the Villagers for Trump, either. He spends most of his free time with the Corvette club (he is the proud owner of a prizewinning 2018 Corvette Grand Sport, white with red interior) and on the golf course. Roger Stokes had been misidentified. Freaked out by the social-media vitriol, the couple hid out in Georgia for a week before returning to Florida, reading through the hate mail. It took nearly a month for the Miami Herald and other outlets to retract the story identifying him as a white supremacist. Meanwhile, Stokes got in touch with a law firm. Work needs to be done to rehab his reputation. Three months later, Stokes still gets the odd piece of hate mail. You can’t scrub the internet.

McGinty and his crew had targets on their backs too. A week after the parade, McGinty cut through the Winn-Dixie parking lot on his way to one of the local country clubs. The sign fastened to his golf cart read, BIDEN WILL KICK TRUMP’S FAT ASS. Emerging from his shortcut, McGinty confronted a never-ending procession of golf carts crawling along in the opposite direction: a “nonpartisan” Blue Lives Matter parade, where attendees carried homemade signs including IF U DON’T SUPPORT THE POLICE THEN DON’T CALL THEM WHEN YOU NEED THEM.

A man McGinty had never seen before dismounted a cart and stepped into oncoming traffic, blocking his path. McGinty hit the breaks. According to McGinty, the man grabbed him by the throat, digging in his fingernails, breaking the skin, and drawing blood. McGinty says they tussled and that he “punched him in the middle of his face,” in an attempt to get the man away from him. Some guys jumped in and broke up the fracas. One told McGinty to take off.

Going down the line, past the parading golf carts, McGinty caught half thumbs-up and half middle fingers. A few minutes later, he pulled over to the side of the road to phone the sheriff. He says he feared Trump supporters would report that he had assaulted the man without provocation. He described his attacker as five-foot-11 and “Italian looking.” Villages News appeared on the scene and took photos and a video of McGinty recounting the assault. “I keep trying to back off a little bit,” he told Villages News. “Every time I do that, they keep coming after me. How friggin’ dumb can they be? Leave me alone. Let me have a protest with my sign. But they keep egging me on, and now we’re going to have a battle between now and November the 3rd.” (Naturally, McGinty’s calling the sheriff was met with controversy. “Both men were throwing punches,” reads one letter to the editor in the Villages News. “I can see why he doesn’t want the other guy to file a report because Ed knows he is lying himself.”)

The Trumpers like to pull over and debate McGinty and his crew, too. Happens a few times a week, at least. While Marr records the incidents on his cell phone, McGinty invites his antagonist to take a swing at him. “When they come at me, I give them a look like a crazy person,” he says. The only thing that could make him stop is a Biden win in November.

The mainstream Villages Democrats haven’t been shy about expressing their opinions of McGinty’s tactics. In early September, he broke ties with the official Villages Democrats group after growing tired of the criticism other Democrats directed at him. “All these mealymouthed armchair Democrats say I haven’t changed a single Republican mind in three years,” McGinty says. “It’s not about changing Republican minds. It’s about not allowing Republicans to push me around.” (Stanley, president of the Villages Democrats, doesn’t see it that way: “So they’re going to push them around? What actually sways people is information. Spending two hours talking to someone in the hopes of changing their mind is not as effective as spending two hours calling people who need help to vote.”)

So in the weeks leading up to the most important election of his lifetime, six days a week from 4 to 5 p.m., McGinty is out on the corners with his posse. “That is the best hour of my day,” says Lyn McKenzie, a flight attendant for 38 years who moved to Florida from Dallas in 2018 and joined McGinty’s protests in February. “We get to sit together and talk how we feel.”

Out with McGinty, McKenzie has tried to take on the role of peacekeeper. Her signage is far less brash than her fellow protesters’. She tends toward Biden and Harris placards and custom banners commenting on current events. LIKE A MIRACLE, HE’LL BE GONE is her latest and favorite. “I don’t like the ‘Fuck you’s. I can’t even stand to hear old ladies talk that way,” she says. You are an old lady! Do you know what you sound like? What kind of example are you setting for your grandchildren? I say it at home in front of the TV, but I will not stoop to that level in public.”

But a sunny attitude hasn’t spared McKenzie from confrontation. Her first scare, she says, came from a young man driving a pickup truck raised on huge tires. “He idled in front of us for a while just to gas us with diesel fumes. He pulled over and got in Ed’s face. He was very fit. Shaved his whole body. He wore a bright-pink tank top and matching shorts. He just couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t support Trump. He was very angry.” Another time, a guy who McKenzie suspected was drunk repeatedly shouted, “Are you calling me a Nazi?” McKenzie mentions that a retired Marine once encouraged McGinty, “Go ahead! Take a poke at me!” She recalls that he insisted he hadn’t risked his life at war “so we could protest.” Then there was the scary — and maybe disturbed — guy with a sharpened stick who kept showing up. McKenzie says that he drove through a dangerous intersection just to try to start a fight. “Every day I make sure I put on good panties … just in case something happens and I get killed. I don’t want the cops cringing at any gross granny panties,” McKenzie says.

She may disagree with Sandler’s methods, but she agrees that the Villages has become inhospitable for liberals. If Trump wins, McKenzie plans to leave the Villages. “I’m moving to Mexico. I need to live close to an airport for work, so I’m thinking of Cancún or Cabo.”

“These Trump supporters don’t understand the vulgarity of the signs on Ed’s cart. You don’t have a problem with 200,000 people dying from COVID, but you’re upset by the language on a sign? I just can’t believe this is happening,” McKenzie says. “I’m thinking there is no God. We’re doomed.”

Additional reporting by Amelia Schonbek

*This article appears in the September 28, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The #Resistance and the Retirement Community