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Among Trump’s retiree supporters in The Villages, everyone is to blame — except Trump

The president cancelled his planned visit to the central Florida retirement community after two more mass shootings. As criticism mounts, his support in The Villages remains high.

THE VILLAGES — Golf bags were fastened to carts by sunrise Tuesday in hopes of sneaking in 18 holes before the rain clouds showed up again. Neighbors huddled for the daily dilemma: Panera or the Starbucks across the street? Couples walked dogs through the village square as Fox News updates blared from speakers perched above sidewalks.

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Elsewhere in Florida and the nation, the weekend’s mass shootings have provoked some of the most hostile criticism of Donald Trump’s presidency to date. Democrats are holding Trump accountable for inspiring white nationalists and for inaction on restricting firearms.

Yet inside the The Villages, a retirement hub of 125,000 residents north of Orlando, Trump’s supporters easily tuned out the uproar. Besides the daily distraction of golf, pickle ball and “a-party-every-night” mantra, life here comes with a steady stream of conservative news and tens of thousands of like-minded Republicans quick to back their president.

“They want to put everything on him,” said Jimmy Clements, who in June moved here from Virginia with his wife Sarah. “‘It’s all his fault. He pulled the trigger,’ according to the news.”

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Trump was scheduled to discuss Medicare on Tuesday at The Villages in a highly anticipated event, but he postponed the visit after gunmen in El Paso and Dayton killed a combined 31 people. Instead, Trump planned visits to those two cities while continuing to face backlash from his Democratic rivals.

A box containing copies of The Villages Daily Sun foreshadows the cancellation of Trump's scheduled visit to the Sumter County retirement community on Monday, August 5, 2019, at the community's Lake Sumter Landing. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

They have called out Trump in the most critical terms of any modern U.S. president. Former vice president and Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden accused Trump on Twitter of using the Oval Office “to encourage and embolden white supremacy.” Several have unequivocally called Trump a racist whose rhetoric against undocumented immigrants inspired the El Paso gunman to shoot up a Walmart on the Texas-Mexico border.

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Trump’s faithful here, avid followers of the news, are acutely aware of these broadsides. Yet over two days of interviews with his supporters here, none conceded that Trump had erred in anyway or needed to change.

Why is it not enough to denounce white nationalism? Perhaps some new gun laws could help, but how can they trust Democrats aren’t angling for gun elimination? If Trump is racist, why is black unemployment so low?

It’s the response from Democratic candidates, not Trump, that is destructive to American politics. They are quick to shift blame for the tragedies to the national media, Congress, Democrats — anyone but the president.

“It’s not what he says, it what he does,” said Jack Brisky, 71. “Look at what he’s done for the African American community. He’s not a politician. He shoots from the hip.”

His brother Larry Brisky quickly added: “How many presidents do that?”

There’s a reason Trump wanted to come here, and likely will reschedule soon. The Villages represent one of the biggest pro-Trump voting blocs in Florida, a swing state he most needs to win in 2020. It has political significance, too, as a place that has attracted Republican candidates since George W. Bush became the first president to visit in 2004.

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The Villages are a collection of active retirement communities where residents can’t buy in unless they’re 55. The community is anchored by three village squares, where every street is Main Street circa 1960 and rum runners and music are a nightly indulgence.

And it’s rapidly growing. The Villages spans three counties — Sumter, Marion and Lake — and bulldozers and excavators are constantly pushing the boundaries of this retiree mecca. Six hundred people move here every month and many immediately trade in their car for a golf cart and register to vote as Republicans.

Frank Lame, 89, rolls up an enclosure on his golf cart while parked outside the Old Mill Playhouse (movie theater) on Monday at The Villages in Sumter County. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Meanwhile, the developers behind The Villages, a corporation that has funneled millions of dollars to Republican candidates, have also built a local media empire of conservative outlets. They own a flourishing local newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun, and a radio station that plays throughout the village squares.

“Here’s the Bee Gees taking you to Fox News,” the station announces, as a golf cart with a Confederate flag top zips through the village square at Lake Sumter Landing. There’s now a “Villagers for Trump” group to compliment two local Republican organizations.

It’s an environment that many of the residents find welcoming after spending their working years in colder climates and Democratic states. Over a span of three days this month, residents moved to The Villages from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York, according to the information center.

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Pat Tomallo came to The Villages a decade ago after living in Ohio and Baltimore — a city, she quickly noted, she loved, but agreed with Trump that it had problems. At 79, she has found herself in an overwhelmingly red area for the first time in her life.

“I know very few people who are Democrats,” Tomallo said on her way to lunch, pushed in a wheelchair by her granddaughter, Kate.

Her husband, Al Ruiz, said there was a Democrat in his golf foursome who could no longer tolerate their fairway chatter.

“He said, ‘I hate Trump,’ and he quit,” Ruiz said.

From left: Nancy Meyer, 81, Paula Berman, 71, Mirelle Freedman, 75, Shelly Newman, 68, and Jo Harper, 75, play Mah Jongg on Monday, August 5, 2019, at the Democratic Campaign Headquarters in Wildwood. The women, all residents of The Villages in Sumter County, are part of The Villages' Democratic Mah Jongg Group. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Chris Stanley, 55, president of The Villages Democratic Club, on Monday, August 5, 2019, at the Democratic Campaign Headquarters in Wildwood. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

The Democratic Party here is active and sometimes draws hundreds of people to its meetings. Last year, Andrew Gillum boasted a large crowd of Villagers just before winning the Democratic nomination for governor.

“If some of the larger Democratic counties had worked as hard as we did, we would have a Gov. Gillum,” said Chris Stanley, the head of the The Villages Democratic Club.

Still, Democrats had hoped by now that a younger wave of retirees would usher in more moderate politics. Instead, the newest transplants have only solidified a fast-growing metro area into a Republican stronghold that buffers the wave of Democrat-leaning millennials and minorities moving to large cities. In Sumter County, Trump won 70 percent of the vote in 2016. Heading into 2020, Republicans out-register Democrats by 30,000.

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Democrats here say they survive by avoiding political debates, even now as they express alarm that their Republican neighbors won’t call out Trump for the role they say he clearly played in this weekend’s mass shootings.

“I don’t argue. I don’t wear Joe Biden stickers,” Robert Quigley, a Pennsylvania transplant said as he exited his golf cart, a fat cigar in hand. “I don’t get into it.”

Democrat Robert Quigley buttons up rain protection on golf cart while visiting Lake Sumter Landing on Monday, August 5, 2019, at The Villages in Sumter County. Quigley was happy to hear that President Donald Trump had cancelled his scheduled visit to The Villages on Tuesday. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]