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Fear and loathing in The Villages | Column

A retired editor masks up to take in the Pence rally at The Villages and try to make sense of it all.

We were somewhere around Brooksville, near The Villages, when the acid reflux began to take hold. I was prepared. My wife, Thia, riding shotgun beside me, always carried my drug stash in her purse: my Pepcid, edema pills, blood thinners just in case. I swallowed a couple of Pepcid, felt the relief course through me. At my advanced age, I would need my full health and wits about me on this perilous mission to the savage heart of Trump territory.

This was the the day Vice President Mike Pence was slated to visit The Villages, Florida’s huge 130,000-person senior residential community, Manhattan-sized, “America’s Friendliest Hometown.” We’d decided to take a little day trip, leaving our high-rise abode in Tampa, where we practice safe distancing, and where, like so many of you, we’ve been trying not to go utterly out of our minds.

Barry Golson [ Provided by Barry Golson ]

The months of Trump/COVID-era breaking news, bombshell after bombshell out of Washington, the viciousness of the national discourse, the tensions of the election — never mind my stomach, my psyche’s near shot.

As we roll toward The Villages, a virus-stricken Trump is currently on steroids. In the past week alone, he King Konged his way out of Walter Reed Hospital, switched to Tony the Tiger, “I feel g-r-r-reat!,” then boarded the Marine One helicopter, banked off the Washington Monument, landed on the White House lawn, ascended the balcony, ripped off his mask, Evita!

(I will read, a couple of days later, that he tried out the idea on a couple of friends — for real — of ripping open his shirt to reveal, underneath, that he’s Superman. Someone may have waved kryptonite at him, I don’t know, but he passed it up.)

I’ve been mentally flashing. Trump may claim he feels 20 years younger, but I’m about Trump’s age, and I’m ready for heavy infusion of tranquilizers. I should probably be headed for a quiet walk by a river.

Instead, I choose to take my frazzled self, and wife, on a day trip to a nearby land. It’s a magical place where people say they’re content with how things are. Or used to be. Or will be again. America’s Friendliest, etc. The Pence speech is officially billed as a Make America Great Again event. It is three days after Pence’s debate with Kamala Harris — how time flies! — and three weeks before the elections.

My jagged mental state aside, the promise of the event was catnip to a semi-retired magazine journalist. I’m a transplant from the Northeast, living in a mixed-to-liberal bubble in South Tampa, near our married kids. At The Villages, we’ll be visiting our age cohort, a crowd I don’t encounter much in these divided, distanced times.

Estimates vary, but up to 75 percent of the residents of The Villages vote Republican. The place gets a lot of attention from the pols. In Florida, the quintessential purple state, the senior vote is fought over like hyenas snapping at scraps. Everyone from POTUS to Trump acolyte Gov. Ron DeSantis makes regular campaign stops there.

So here we are, driving up Route 75 in usual Florida fashion, idling along at 85, cars around us weaving in and out of lanes, without signaling. To Floridians, using turn signals is a lot like wearing masks: it’s for wusses. I am driving a Mini Cooper, my own steroidal impulse purchase a couple of years ago. It’s fun and rejuvenating to drive, but it makes the Ford F-150 pickups that come up behind me seem like Panzers.

From the billboards alongside, we know we’re getting close to our destination. “Join the fun at The Villages.” Also, “Pre-owned RVs,” “Nordic Gun and Pawn,” the Adult Supercenter. A radio jock’s billboard: “Boss Hogg Radio: No Rap and No Crap.” We turn off at the exit.

The billboards are a tad misleading. In fact, The Villages have a pleasant, if bland, modestly upscale appearance, Disney-esque. It is a planned suburbia of closely packed ranch houses in a range of prices, with screened lanais, easy on the eye, sprawling, Spielbergian. We turn down Buena Vista Road, a familiar place-name to visitors to Disney World, an hour south.

This is the ultimate senior colony, for the golf-mad, of course, but with hundreds of daily activities ranging from pickleball (tennis lite) to gardening clubs, a vast playground for aging boomers. Notably, few if any playgrounds for kids. Children are limited to 30-day visits, and I can’t help wondering if there are grandma cops ready to perp-walk the tots who overstay their visas.

We know from the papers that the Pence event is at Brownwood Paddock Square, one of the three main plazas. We begin our tour at Sumpter Landing Square, about 15 minutes north, as the golf buggy flies. The squares are themed, with similar layouts, central swards with benches and gazebos, surrounded by cute shops and restaurants, a gingerbread confection of small-town Americana, circa 1960. We start with Sumpter Landing because we want to see the Panera where The Incident occurred.

Earlier this summer, during a parade of golf carts festooned with Trump banners, someone jeered from the sidelines as the parade passed a local Panera. A buggy driver in the parade, a silver-haired gent, took offense at the jeering and yelled out “White Power!” An iPhone video of the moment went viral, and Trump retweeted it. He deleted his tweet the next day, but not before it went worldwide.

We wheel slowly into the square, windows firmly rolled up — and there is the Panera in question, a Stonewall Tavern icon of our troubled times. We drive back down Buena Vista, toward Brownwood Paddock Square, where Pence is appearing. Golf-buggy traffic is picking up. In their special lanes beside us, they move as a vast flotilla, decked out in flags, banners, placards: TRUMP, PENCE, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. Several buggies swerve out into the main road, no turn signal.

We roll past Roosevelt Golf Course, check out the Eisenhower Recreational Center, and drive into Brownwood Paddock Square, which has a distinctive Old West theme. Parked along every sidewalk of every street are hundreds of festooned carts, strung with bunting and banners. There are endless framed photos of Trump and Pence, plastered across windshields, on fenders, on the sides of the carts. The imagery makes the eyes blur.

Along the sidewalks, we see a human tide of grey- and white-haired elderly folk, some in T-shirts and flip-flops, marching in a shambling procession, waving red signs, juggling placards. Few are wearing masks. More imagery of Trump, of Pence. It is festive, but people look determined, on their way to a meetin'.

This event is obviously attracting the evangelical side of Trump’s support; Pence is their guy, he of the prayer breakfasts at the White House. There seems to be a fervor in the eyes of these walkers, as if on a mission, a pilgrimage. Or so it seems to me. Pro-life signs abound. One shirt on a short, perspiring woman reads, “I stand for the flag, I kneel for Christ.”

My flashbacks strobing, I recall the San Genaro Festival, courtesy of The Godfather, where icons of the Virgin Mary were carried respectfully though cobblestoned streets. Maybe it’s just my roiling stomach, but I can’t help feeling I’m among the devoted. True believers.

The MAGA organizers and the Secret Service have cordoned off what appears to be a large lot just off the square, suitable for chairs and some cart parking. The sidewalk crowds begin to thin, siphoning into the lot.

I get a partial view, and see several thousand folding chairs set up, side by side, very close, filling up rapidly. There are a couple of entrances, with TSA-style turnstiles. One entrance is at the corner of a mock Old West façade, cops stationed under a sign labeled — and I am not making this up, as Dave Barry would say — “Outhouse.”

Thia and I drive a couple of blocks and find a now-quiet parking lot, where we slip into a slot, don masks, check that we have sanitizer in our pockets, and take our first cautious steps outside. The elder-ninjas have landed, with spritzer and cane. I feel a nervous rumble.

“Pepcid?”

“Check.”

Before leaving Tampa, just as research, I looked up the event’s website to check the requirements for admission to the outdoor seating area. This is what the online invitation said: “By registering for this event … you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, and waive, release, and discharge Donald J. Trump for President, Inc … from any and all liability under any theory, whether in negligence or otherwise, for any illness or injury.”

I sent virtual regrets.

Now, picking our way carefully through the sidewalk, stepping into the roadway to avoid maskless Villagers, we are on high alert. Hello! There’s a parked cart with a bold, blue Biden poster. A bit further on, we see further signs of opposition. One masked young man, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, holds up a sign scrawled with “LBGT + Women’s Rights.” We stop to chat, and he says people have been mostly okay with him; one woman read the Bible to him, another muttered “Communist!”

At another entrance, now closed to new admissions, a large crowd has gathered. Between the buildings I can just see the outlines of a stage. We hear indistinct echoes of the loudspeaker. If I squint, I think I can see, in the far distance, a dark jacket, a neat, tiny white head. Not very satisfactory. I saw more of Ringo Starr from the top rows of at Shea Stadium, Beatles, 1965.

I’m feeling frustrated, being so close, yet unable to report. I’m an old firedog, I can smell the fire, I’m straining at the leash.

A momentary gust makes audible a phrase from the loudspeaker: “…and we will drain the swamp…” It’s the only thing I hear Pence say, and though I take his meaning, I’m not sure how the line will go down here. I’ve read that sinkholes are a perennial problem here in the mushy Villages.

Thia and I walk away slowly, taking it in. The crowd is still enclosed, sidewalks mostly safe for ninjas. There’s a buzz above us. A prop plane is hauling a banner across the sky. It reads “Pence is why you can’t see your grandkids.”

I notice another parked golf cart with a Biden sign.

Is something blowing in the wind?

As an old reporter, I’m disappointed. I’m leaving without a story. I can’t say I saw Pence at a MAGA event. But I saw the scene. I got a sense of the devotion this crowd feels for this ticket. The risks they’re willing to take for their special guys. This is an over-65 crowd, and they’re behaving like it’s … 1960. They hear the news, they know the COVID numbers are soaring in Florida again. They know eight out of 10 COVID deaths in Florida have come from their age bracket.

I don’t get it. These are my age mates. We passed the seasons together, perhaps not on the same side, but sharing a lot of common history. Though as white as can be — I’ve not seen a Black face since we arrived — they look like nice folks. They look well-off, educated, even in their Build the Wall! T-shirts. They must have some sense of the disaster this administration has been, how history will treat it. Yet they’re with him.

Trump said serving in the military is for suckers and losers, yet here, with a heavy ex-military presence and a huge American Legion post, they salute him. Trump mocked evangelicals after an Oval Office laying-on of hands — “Can you believe people believe that bulls--t?”—yet this crowd believes in him. Here in the sylvan Villages, folks might as well be on Fifth Avenue, with Donald shooting at them. “Doesn’t matter,” they always tell reporters who ask. “He’s got our back.”

Why this fellow? How did he, of all people, strike a near-religious chord with nearly half of the American public, old folk prominently among them? I can see the devotion in the eyes of the crowds around me, from a safe distance away, but I’m no closer to understanding it. Aren’t we all living through the biggest aberration in our history? Won’t historians call this the most destructive, corrupt, uniquely demoralizing political period ever?

Maybe, maybe not. Lately, in seclusion, I’d been rereading a collection of Hunter Thompson’s political writing for Rolling Stone and Playboy, collected in a volume he called, for reasons of his own, The Great Shark Hunt. (I happen to have commissioned the titled essay.) There was, indeed, another year as turbulent as this one.

Forgive the digression, and the lengthy quotation, but here is Hunter Thompson, in 1973. The nation had been stunned by the revelations of Woodward and Bernstein, bombshell after bombshell, Watergate has been exposed, and the sheriffs are moving in on Richard Nixon. It is one year before Nixon will resign, in 1974. As Thompson wrote then:

Nixon, at least, was blessed with a mixture of arrogance and stupidity that caused him to blow the boilers almost immediately after taking command. By bringing in hundreds of thugs, fixers and fascists to run the Government, he was able to crank almost every problem he touched into a mindbending crisis.

Political candidates in 1974, at least, are going to have to deal with an angry, disillusioned electorate that is not likely to settle for flag-waving and pompous bulls--t. The Watergate spectacle was a shock, but the fact of a millionaire President paying less income tax than most construction workers... tends to personalize Mr. Nixon’s failures in a very visceral way. Even Senators and Congressmen have been shaken out of their slothful ruts.

The greedy, fascistic incompetence of Richard Nixon’s Presidency will leave scars on the minds and lives of a whole generation — his supporters and political allies no less than his opponents. Maybe that’s why the end of this incredible, frantic year feels so hollow...

How long, oh Lord, how long? And how much longer will we have to wait before some high-powered shark with a fistful of answers will finally bring us face-to-face with the ugly question that is already so close to the surface in this country, that sooner or later even politicians will have to cope with it?

George Orwell had a phrase for it. Neither he nor Aldous Huxley had much faith in the future of participatory democracy. Orwell even set a date: 1984 — and the most disturbing revelation that emerged from last year’s Watergate hearings was not so much the arrogance and criminality of Nixon’s henchmen, but the aggressively totalitarian character of his whole Administration. It is ugly to know just how close we came to meeting Orwell’s deadline.

So here we go again, history as both farce and tragedy. Hunter Thompson, who warned us, is no longer with us. Woodward, who later published The Final Days, showing Nixon drunk and talking to portraits on the White House walls, is always with us. He’s the one who just told us how brazenly Trump lied to the public about the coronavirus.

I’m pretty sure Nixon was never pumped up on steroids, or threatened to wear a Superman shirt—the man wore suits and laced shoes for photo ops on the beach — but he was in bad shape. He knew the end was coming, his polls dropped as low as 29 percent.

But Trump has almost never, never dropped below 42 percent.

This is what I came to The Villages to explore, to think about. How did we get here? How is it that the polls are even this close? What are my fellow seniors thinking? I may be sensing some shifts in the breeze, but the folks around here are, for the most part, going to show up for church for this guy.

I look around, I think: I’ve probably seen 3,000 of you at this event today, and most of you haven’t worn masks. The Florida infection rate is soaring again, as it is worldwide. So, figure up to 900 infections, 100 hospitalized. Ten to 15 of you nice people, enjoying your day at a rally, will be dead this time next month. Self-administered.

Who’ve you been listening to? Why do so many not see Trump for what he is? We were finally able to figure out who Nixon was, with help from gonzo journalists and establishment reporters. What is present now that wasn’t then?

Back at the car, Thia and I get in, use the sanitizer spritzer. I check my iPhone quickly, glance at my Twitter and Facebook alerts. As I wheel out of town, I roll down the windows of my Mini. On the loudspeakers in the town square, as in all The Villages town squares, we hear the FM radio station playing oldies, as it does every day, all day long. Not Muzak, decent songs, pull at your heartstrings. Mick Jagger, “Wild Horses.”

Village loudspeakers! I won’t say town video screens in 1984. But I will say I hear the loudspeakers of “The Truman Show,” the Jim Carrey movie about the perfect village where everything is really a TV show. Here, as we drive away, the friendly announcer’s voice says, “It’s five o’clock. Let’s let the Rolling Stones take us right into … Fox News.”

Barry Golson is a writer and a retired editor who supervised the Playboy interviews, TV Guide and Forbes Traveler. He lives in Tampa.

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