Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She cohosts the history podcasts, “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History,” and is coproducer of the podcast, “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Shortly after my mother moved to The Villages, Florida, in 2013, I spent some time visiting her at her new home. As we were catching up one afternoon, the doorbell rang.
The neighbor who entered could have stepped straight off a 1950s sitcom stage, smiling brightly as she held out a coconut layer cake. She joined us for a slice at the dining room table, smoothly segueing from her welcome-wagon introduction to a lengthy warning about the dangers of “creeping sharia.” (She had once talked to John Boehner, then Speaker of the House, she confided to us, but he simply did not take the threat of Islamic law seriously enough – soon, she warned, the US would be awash in honor-killings and severed hands, dictated by the courts.)
That introduction to The Villages, a planned community in central Florida for adults over 55, turned out to encapsulate both the politics and culture of the town. A regular stop for conservatives campaigning for office or hawking books, The Villages cultivates conservative politics and a deep longing for an imaginary American past. Donald Trump visited twice as President, greeted both times by enthusiastic crowds – unsurprising in a place where MAGA hats and golf carts festooned with Trump signs are a common sight.
So it came as no surprise when news broke this week that two men in The Villages, both of whom had expressed support for Trump, had pleaded guilty to voter fraud after casting multiple ballots in the 2020 election. That news came the same week that Mark Meadows, a former North Carolina congressman who served as Trump’s chief of staff in the final year of his administration, was removed from voter rolls in North Carolina as officials there investigate him for election fraud tied to allegations of false residency. (A spokesperson for Meadows declined to comment to CNN.)
The pickleball courts of The Villages may seem a world away from the suit-and-tie seriousness of the White House where Meadows worked, but both were built on a similar mix of toxic nostalgia and manufactured history – ingredients for a level of entitlement that might easily surpass the demands of electoral law.
The Villages emerged in its current form in the 1990s, clumps of tightly packed homes interlaced with golf courses, restaurants and paved trails for the omnipresent golf carts that residents use to putter from place to place. But the heart of each village is the Town Square, a gathering place carefully designed to evoke the days of Spanish settlement in Florida, the dusty cattle ranches of the 19th century and the Northeastern lakes that wealthy Floridians fled to in the mid-20th century to escape the summer heat. If the cartoonish storefronts aren’t enough to sell Villagers on the authenticity of the community’s self-described “unique fabled history,” there are also plenty of fake historical plaques, similar to the one Trump installed on one of his golf courses.
This is a two-step historical fantasy: first creating a false past and then evoking a deep longing to return to it. And of course, it is not just an elaborate fantasy meant to sell real estate – it’s the political fantasy neatly encapsulated in the phrase, Make America Great Again. It is both manufactured and weaponized nostalgia.
Comedian and writer John Hodgman regularly reminds his audiences that nostalgia is a toxic impulse. From Greek roots that translate to “return home” and “pain,” nostalgia is an ache for something you cannot have – a return to the past – made more acute by the knowledge that you once had it. It is not a memory fondly recalled but a sense of loss and grief that can easily curdle into resentment and bitterness – particularly if you believe that what you lost was unjustly taken from you and that you deserve to have it back.
Nostalgia fuels the architecture and artifice of The Villages, but it also fuels its politics. Sumter County, home to The Villages, gave 68% of its votes to Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. As that number suggests, it’s not pure Trump country. Though small in number, more liberal Villagers made themselves known during the 2020 election, donning Biden-Harris gear, hanging up hand-drawn signs with slogans like, “Truth Not Lies,” and talking regularly to journalists who wondered if the newly visible Democratic Villagers were a sign that Trump was in danger in his adopted home state of Florida (he wasn’t – he won that state by 3 points).
The political tensions in The Villages were on full display during the 2020 campaign. Unlike four years earlier, a pro-Trump golf-cart parade in July 2020 drew counterprotesters. That clash in the community, which is 98% White, made headlines when man leading the parade shouted, “White power!” at the protestors in a video that Trump promptly quote-tweeted, writing, “Thank you to the great people of The Villages!”
At the time, the White House said that Trump had not heard the repeated cries of “White power”; a writer for the New York Times noted, “To miss this would require superhuman powers of cluelessness. It would be like recommending that everyone watch Abraham Zapruder’s wonderful footage of a scenic but uneventful 1963 parade in downtown Dallas.” Nostalgia, it turns out, is as much about erasing the past as fabricating it.
The fiction of nostalgia is politically important because it disguises a desire for power as a longing for the past. It creates a justification: We have a right to power because it was ours before. And that justification excuses all kinds of behavior. What’s a few illicit votes, or an insurrection, if they set the world right again?
My mom moved out of The Villages before the MAGA hats arrived, but our encounter with the creeping-sharia welcoming committee made clear that the community’s politics had solidified well before Trump ran for president. His campaign resonated there not because it was so radically new but because it was comfortably familiar.