PANAMA CITY, Florida—The crowd at the Donald Trump rally was a sea of gray and white. They hobbled on walkers and canes into the massive amphitheater, searching for a place to sit on the lawn.
They were old enough to remember a different America—an America that was great. A place of strength and confidence, where men were men and women were women, where people respected the flag and their elders and prayed to God. That was not the America they saw today.
“I am 72 years old, and I have seen our country absolutely fall apart,” Jim Smith, a gray-haired grandfather with an eagle on his T-shirt, told me. Smith retired to the beach after a career in the Army that took him all over the world; at one point, he worked for NATO running logistics in Bosnia. But today, he did not like what he saw all around him.
“Our economy is depleted, our military forces are depleted. We’re a country that's in trouble,” he said, ticking off the issues: Spanish language everywhere, babies slaughtered by abortion. Muslims invading America, abetted by Democrats. “What culture do we have anymore?” he asked.
At Trump’s rallies across the country—not just in Florida, where the effect may be especially pronounced—it is common to find an abundance of the superannuated. In fact, senior citizens are his strongest demographic. In polls, voters over 65 tend to be the only age group he wins: In surveys conducted for The Atlantic by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, Hillary Clinton led Trump in every age group under 65, but he beat her by a slight margin with those 65 or older.
In the primaries, too, Trump supporters were older, on average, than those of other Republican candidates. Despite the stereotype of the Trump supporter as a prime-aged working man, Trump’s campaign has actually been fueled primarily by support from the elderly.
This makes sense, doesn't it? Trump’s whole candidacy is predicated on nostalgia—not just making America great, but making it great again, returning it to an imagined, prelapsarian state of greatness. (Appropriately, Trump stole the slogan from Ronald Reagan.) More so even than most Republican candidates, Trump has run a campaign aimed squarely and frankly at old people’s nostalgia, fear of danger, and anxiety about social change.
He has also appealed directly to their desire to protect their government benefits. The need for entitlement reform is a gospel of today’s Republican Party and a hallmark of the budget plans proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. But while virtually the entire rest of the Republican field was promising to restore fiscal discipline by reforming Social Security and Medicare, Trump insisted the programs didn't need to be touched.
“We’re not going to hurt the people who have been paying into Social Security their whole life and then all of a sudden they’re supposed to get less,” Trump said at a Republican debate in February. It is a theme he still sounds today: At the rally in Panama City, he told the crowd that a vote for him was a “vote to put America first and protect Medicare and Social Security!”
Sarah Jane Reynolds, a 72-year-old retired administrative assistant I met in Panama City, lives on Social Security, and was powerfully drawn to Trump's message. “All these politicians saying Social Security is in trouble, that’s hogwash,” she scoffed. “It’s not a benefit, it’s our money that we paid in. Don’t tell me there ain’t no money—I don’t believe that garbage.”
Against all the modern disasters, Trump's campaign represents a rebellion of the aged—a bygone generation’s last furious gasp against modernity. “America was great in the ’60s and ’70s,” Frank Everett, a 76-year-old retired grocery manager, told me. “Now people’s gotten where they haven’t got pride.” Donna O’Brien, 69, told me, “I remember when everybody loved America. What went wrong? They took God out. It’s scary. It makes me want to cry.”
It isn’t just that Trump appeals to old people—it’s that he appeals to this particular cohort of old people, whose vision of America was shaped at a particular time. They speak of a last chance to save America, a country that will cease to exist if Trump doesn’t win.
“I grew up at a better time,” Keith Easter, a 72-year-old dentist, told me at Trump’s rally in Ocala the next day. “In the 1960s and ’70s in Rhode Island, where I grew up, you could get a job anywhere. Now you have to have a master’s degree just to cut lawns, for crying out loud.” Easter said he wasn’t voting for himself but for his descendants. “You know, we’re pretty fortunate, but our kids and grandkids are going to have a pretty difficult life,” he said. “For anybody who’s going to be alive 50 years from now, it’s going to be different.”
Someone who is 70 today was born in 1946 and grew up in the Beaver Cleaver world of the 1950s, an anomalous period of time in America when the postwar economy was booming and the dominant culture had not yet been disrupted by the civil-rights movement and the sexual revolution. Today’s old people are the last Americans who will ever remember that bygone country—and they see the current election as their last chance to restore it.
he oldest voters have long been the most conservative—some might consider that the wisdom that comes with age. The American National Election Survey asks people to rate themselves on a 7-point ideological scale, where 1 is “extremely liberal,” 4 is “middle of the road,” and 7 is “extremely conservative.” Over the last four decades, the oldest Americans have consistently scored the most conservative, the youngest the most liberal.
The results are largely consistent over time. Since 1972, people over 65 have averaged slightly on the conservative side of the scale’s midpoint, around 4.5, according to data analyzed for me by Shawn Patterson, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The youngest voters’ ideology varies more. In the 1980s, voters under 25 were barely more liberal than their elders; in the early 2000s, after George W. Bush was elected, young voters considered themselves much more liberal. These days, voters under 25 average around 3.75 on the scale, making the ideological gap between the oldest and youngest voters about what it was in 1972, when 18-year-olds first got to vote. That means the generational gap in political perspective is as wide now as it was at the height of the Vietnam War.
Older voters have been trending Republican in recent elections. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the over-65 vote by 12 points, his largest margin among any age group; in 2008, John McCain won them by 8, the only age group he won. Old people are also much more likely to vote than younger voters: In 2012, they were 13 percent of the population but 16 percent of voters. (These figures are taken from exit polls and the Census; according to some proprietary data, the 2012 electorate actually skewed even older than the exit polls claimed.)
Millennials’ turnout in 2012 was just 46 percent of those eligible, while the turnout rate for Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, was 69 percent, according to Pew. Older people's propensity to vote is particularly pronounced in midterm elections, when the youth vote falls off: In 2014, 22 percent of voters were over 65. The 2016 election is likely to be the last presidential contest in which a majority of voters belong to the Boomers or prior generations.
The voters who are now eligible for Social Security are the last Americans remaining who remember what life was like before the 1960s revolution in American culture. “Those years of the ’50s were the last years of segregation, moms in suburban kitchens, gas-guzzling station wagons, and none of the conveniences of modern technology,” noted UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck. Particularly for those who were children at the time, the era carries a romantic cast.
As America grows steadily more diverse, the oldest generation is markedly whiter than the youngest: 80 percent of Americans over 65 are non-Hispanic whites, versus just 57 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds. No wonder they remember—and pine for—a different America than the one that exists today. In a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, respondents over 65 believed America’s “culture and way of life” had changed for the worse since the 1950s, by a 14-point margin. By the same margin, those between 18 and 29 said America had changed for the better. (Race is inextricable from the generational divide: The poll found whites were far more likely than nonwhites to pine for the ’50s.)
Yet, between America’s aging population and old people’s propensity for voting, the elderly have far more influence in politics than any other group. Old voters have long memories and a greater sense of history. But they also have less of a personal stake in issues like jobs (if they’re retired), education (if their children are no longer in school), and health care (seniors are the happy beneficiaries of a single-payer system, Medicare). They say they’re voting to preserve their grandchildren’s futures, but their votes are mostly canceling out their grandchildren’s.
Putting all this together, a portrait emerges of an older generation that is increasingly at odds with the rest of society, distinct in the world it remembers and the way it sees modern society, its concerns alienated from those born later. They are adrift in a world that no longer speaks a language they recognize—or they were, until Trump came along.
hree hundred miles from Panama City, in central Florida, lies the Villages, the world's largest age-restricted gated community—a 40-mile-by-40-mile planned development where only those over 55 may settle. Home to more than 150,000 people, it is the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan area for several years running.
Every night, the residents gather at prefab town squares for socializing and entertainment. On a recent evening at Lake Sumter Landing, I found 71-year-old Bob Farwell sitting on a bench as live music played, reading a thriller set in Romania on his Kindle and drinking a glass of white wine.
"I've been a Republican all my life, and I think Trump is terrible," Farwell said. "All the things they say about him are how I feel about him: He's a bully, he's irresponsible, and I don't know that he has a moral compass."
Florida, the perennial swing state, is always getting more diverse thanks to the increasing population of Democratic-leaning Hispanics. But the parallel growth in the population of old white people keeps the state politically balanced, preventing it from turning into another California.
They may lean conservative, but outside the bubble of a Trump rally, seniors are less monolithically Republican this year than they have been in other recent elections. In fact, Clinton appears to be doing better with seniors than previous Democratic nominees, eating into Trump's support with his strongest group and pulling ahead in Florida.
From the gazebo in the square, the strains of the Beatles’ “Can't Buy Me Love” were audible, voiced by a singer with a guitar and a taped backing track. To get to the landing, I’d driven across a lake on a bridge that had a separate lane for golf carts. Farwell had neat gray hair and light blue eyes; he wore khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt the color of orange sherbet.
Farwell loves the Villages because of the active lifestyle it provides: He has joined a tai chi group, two car clubs, a gun club, and a genealogical society. He’s self-aware about the pleasant unreality of the place: After a few months, he said, he and his wife looked at each other and said, “No wonder we like it here—everybody's just like us!”
A former partner at an international consulting firm in St. Louis, Farwell has three grandchildren, and he worries about the world they will inherit. “The values I grew up embracing, I think, have gone by the wayside,” he said. “Hard work, being rewarded for what you do, versus welfare and entitlements. People feel entitled to everything, and we’re losing our freedom of speech—college students think they have a right not to be offended! The civil rights protests of the ’60s were valid, but now everybody protests anything and everything.”
In the Republican primary, Farwell liked John Kasich. He hopes Paul Ryan represents the party's future, not Trump. But he is no fan of Hillary Clinton, either—“she's dishonest”—and when we spoke, he had already mailed in his absentee ballot for Trump.
The Villages is known as a conservative stronghold, a gold mine of votes for Republicans campaigning in Florida; Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both campaigned here in 2012. But the views of the people I interviewed were surprisingly mixed. Though I met plenty of staunch Republicans, few said Trump had been their first choice. Not far from where Farwell was sitting, I found a nest of Parrotheads—fans of the singer Jimmy Buffett—sitting on plastic chairs drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and arguing about politics.
“Things are getting worse,” said 68-year-old Jim Leach, a Minnesotan who earned a good living on a high-school education and retired at 56 thanks to smart investing. “Black people are rioting because they want to riot, they don’t want to work. Politicians, they’re not normal people—they’ve never worked a day in their lives.”
Both Jim and his wife, Pat, a 67-year-old who retired from Target, were deeply tanned, testament to the days they now spend mostly golfing. Pat voted for Obama the first time but not the second. “I’m a Republican, but Trump, he’s squirrelly,” she said.
Others in the group included an ardent Bernie Sanders fan, a Clinton supporter, and a man who wished he could vote for Ross Perot again. John McGivney, a retired Long Island Railroad conductor who retained his New York accent, shook his head in frustration.
“This is going to be the first time I’m not voting since I was eligible to vote,” he said. “I’m not proud of it, but I can’t vote for either one of them with a clear conscience. I'm a registered Republican, but Trump scares me.”
The sun was beginning to set over the gazebo in the square. The guitarist cranked up a new tune, and the couples shuffled off of their chairs to dance to “Twist and Shout.”