On Florida’s Gulf Coast, a loose coalition of activists, officials and Trumpworld celebrities is building the world they want to live in
By Kara Voght
SARASOTA, Fla. —
There are a few ways to enter Sarasota County’s modern conservative paradise, but Vic Mellor led me in through what he calls “the cave of doom.”
It’s a narrow, mostly concrete tunnel, painted black and nearly impenetrable to the Florida sunshine. The only sources of light are illuminated quotations that give the tunnel a militia-curious vibe.
To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.
To preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of people always possess arms.
Give me liberty or give me death!
The passageway empties into an outdoor bar and patio adorned with a wall-length Betsy Ross flag. Here, a man who calls himself “America’s Constitution Coach” has hosted weekly “Constitutional Defense” classes — a “one of a kind course on the meaning and purpose of the 2nd Amendment and the entire Constitution!” per a Facebook post. Alongside the back of the property is a gun range, where Mellor has hosted instructors who teach kids as young as 7 how to shoot .22-caliber pistols.
This is the Hollow, Mellor’s light at the end of the tunnel. It was closed because of a zoning dispute at the time of my visit, in mid-August, but he’s optimistic it will be allowed to reopen. Even without anyone there, it seemed clear to me why this place might appeal to a certain kind of southwest Floridian: It was a kind of anti-elitist hangout where like-minded people could gather without anyone telling them Donald Trump’s a liar, or indoctrinating their kids with liberal B.S., or requiring them to get vaccinated against communicable diseases, or insisting that gun culture is its own kind of illness.
“I’m gonna bring kids out there, I’m gonna teach them gun safety, I’m gonna teach them the Constitution,” Mellor says. “All I want is for one kid, at some point — when an adult or a teacher or someone like that says ‘Guns are evil’ — to say, ‘No, we deal with guns all the time, they’re totally safe.’”
The Hollow is a sort of a stronghold by way of an oasis. It’s not huge — a campground, more or less, on 10 acres, much of it kept wild. There are palm trees and American flag-clad pergolas. A zip-line stretches over a moat to a small island, one of several spaces on the property that can be used for wedding ceremonies. Nearby is a stage with a projection wall where Mellor has held movie nights. A crowd favorite from last summer: “2,000 Mules,” a documentary that relies on sketchy evidence and flawed analysis to fuel the widely debunked narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen through voter fraud.
“Physically, there’s not a whole lot to the Hollow,” Mellor says. “It’s more about what it represents.”
What it represents is distrust of mainstream institutions — and the initiative some skeptics are taking to create institutions of their own.
Besides the Hollow, Mellor has built a health-care facility called We the People Health & Wellness Center, to serve people who, like Mellor, distrust the medical establishment. It employs a small team of medical professionals who offer pretty much the same services as any other primary-care facility, with one key distinction: “We’re not gonna push the vaccine — ain’t gonna happen,” Mellor says. In lieu of accepting insurance, the clinic operates on a membership model that “allows people the dignity of freely making their own health care decisions without 3rd party interference,” according to the clinic’s brochure.
Clients can receive “nutraceuticals,” intravenous concoctions like the “Immunity Blend” (zinc chloride, vitamin C, and a B-complex blend). They can also get ivermectin, the anti-parasite medication that some vaccine skeptics embraced as a treatment for covid-19. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved it for that use.)
Distrust breeds demand for alternatives. And Sarasota County, a strip of neon sunsets and white sand beaches along the Gulf Coast of Florida, has become a mini-hub for entrepreneurs who are in the business of meeting that demand. Trump Media, the parent company of Truth Social (an alternative to X, formerly known as Twitter) is based in the city of
Sarasota. Rumble (an alternative to YouTube) has its U.S. headquarters on the other side of Sarasota Bay, in Longboat Key — a barrier island where Charlie Kirk, who founded Turning Point USA (an alternative to the College Republicans) has a condo. Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived National Security adviser, has a home in southern Sarasota County — and, working with Mellor, has been getting involved in local politics.
The MAGA synergy in Sarasota County is not just about building alternative institutions that empower the faithful to live their truth, self-segregated from the mainstream, but to bring existing institutions more in line with the convictions and anxieties of the modern right.
Welcome to Sarasota County, a cradle — and a proving ground — for the MAGAmerican dream.
Mellor opens the door to a windowless office space a few miles down the road from the Hollow. Fluorescent lights flicker on, revealing a conference table set up like a military war room. “The good stuff is on the other side of this wall,” he tells me, and as we turn the corner a floor-to-ceiling web of string comes into view. It’s a map, similar to the sort of mafia org chart you might see in procedural drama on TV, with the logos and names of nonprofits and non-governmental organizations listed next to dollar amounts. Those names are connected, in turn, to the names of liberal political candidates who ran for office in Sarasota County. On the opposite wall is a yards-long project Mellor calls “General Flynn’s complete timeline,” a scrupulous accounting of the retired Army lieutenant general’s career and later encounters with the Department of Justice and FBI.
Flynn decamped to Sarasota County after a tumultuous stint in Trump’s Washington that culminated in a contentious Oval Office meeting in which he and his allies reportedly urged the president to keep fighting the outcome of the 2020 election. Now a MAGA influencer, Flynn records a Rumble show from a studio located in the same building as Mellor’s We the People clinic. The studio and its offices are called “The Hollow 1A” — “1A” for First Amendment.
Mellor serves as a sort of informal chief of staff to “the General” — to Mellor, it’s always “the General” or “General Flynn” — and transports him around town in a Black Escalade he calls the “GF Mobile.” He built Flynn an elaborate studio set with a light-up world map and a curio cabinet, where a Life magazine commemorating President John F. Kennedy’s assassination occupies a prominent shelf. I was permitted to observe Flynn as he filmed a podcast on child trafficking but not to speak with him. “He’s been burned so badly by the media,” Mellor said.
Mellor, 53, grew up in Rhode Island (with the accent to prove it), did a stint in the Marines (with the back and knee injuries to prove it) and eventually made his way to southern Florida, where he made big bucks in the concrete business. He came to politics only recently, during the Trump presidency. He rejects the label of right-wing activist, but is comfortable calling himself “a Second Amendment guy.” “It’s not to hunt wild turkeys,” he says. “It’s to repeal a tyrannical government.” He carries a SIG Sauer 100-yard pistol with him wherever concealed-carry rules allow. And he has a tendency to talk about the world in terms of weakness and strength. “As soon as this country is weak enough,” Mellor says, “we will be taken over.”
He met Flynn at the Hollow in the spring of 2021, and the two former Rhode Islanders became allies in the cause of not being taken over. Here in Sarasota County, that meant going on the offensive. In the spirit of Flynn’s dictum “Local Action = National Impact,” they organized fellow vaccine skeptics to elect three like-minded candidates to the local hospital board. Though a minority, the new members successfully got the board to open an investigation into Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s covid practices. (That review found that the hospital’s covid patients had better survival rates and fewer complications than most.) Mellor himself gave tens of thousands of dollars to a local political action committee that helped deliver an anti-mask, anti-critical-race-theory majority to the county school board last year.
A chief beneficiary of that effort was Bridget Ziegler, a member of the Sarasota County School Board since 2014. Unlike Mellor, she entered conservative politics through the front door: Her husband, Christian Ziegler, then an up-and-comer in the Florida Republican party, encouraged her to run for school board soon after their first daughter was born. In 2022, Bridget ascended to chair the school board and Christian became the chair of the Florida GOP.
Bridget Ziegler had been one of the first to inveigh against “critical race theory,” in September 2020, with a catchy, viral tagline: “Our job is to educate, not indoctrinate.” Later that year, she co-founded Moms for Liberty, a group that took the concerns conservative parents had about masks and race and gender and channeled it into action. She also helped write Florida’s “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” a precursor to state legislation that now limits discussion of LGBTQ+ topics in schools based on what is considered “developmentally appropriate.”
The Zieglers don’t explicitly overlap with Mellor and Flynn in their political work — she doesn’t go to the Hollow — but they have found common cause in the fight over control of the ideological infrastructure of local schools.
On the same day I visited the Hollow, I stopped by an event celebrating Bridget Ziegler’s newest project: a training center where she plans to teach school board members from around the country how to fight like she does.
She stood before a squat, stucco building on Sarasota’s Main Street in a tea-length floral dress, soft blond curls and a placid smile, holding up a wide ceremonial ribbon. A crowd of well-connected activists and GOP establishment types had convened to witness the grand opening of the new training center. (So, too, had a roughly two dozen protesters who opposed it.)
Inside, the building looked like an apartment decorated by a devoted watcher of both HGTV and Fox News — creams and blues and light wood, accented with stylized quotations from GOP celebrities and a few portraits. Over doughnuts and coffee in a slate-gray kitchen, Republican candidates for local office mixed with some college-age men in “Sarasota County Young Republican” polos.
A mostly older contingent lined up to take selfies with Riley Gaines, the former college swimmer who had become a prominent anti-trans activist after a trans woman tied with her in an NCAA championship. A trio of women wearing navy Moms for Liberty T-shirts took a picture with Morton Blackwell, the 83-year-old founder of the Leadership Institute, which was responsible for creating the center.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my belief that the left has greatly overreached,” Blackwell told a packed room. “They’re pitting people against each other. They’re teaching that America is evil. That is not acceptable. We are here to turn the tide.”
He had chosen Bridget to be the new outpost’s chief school board training official. “This is just the start of some amazing things that are going to be coming out of this room — some amazing leaders that are going to be fighting for our children,” she said.
Christian Ziegler leaned against the back corner of the room with folded arms and an approving smile. “Sarasota,” he told me later in an interview, “is going to be the conservative education capital of the country.”
At the ribbon-cutting, activists in attendance talked about how “the gender ideology” is “infiltrating into every aspect of our lives,” and that “there is no such thing as a transgender child” — a remark that caused the room to erupt in applause. Bridget Ziegler offered her own feelings on the subject: “As a mother of three, I absolutely will not stand idly by for this to be their future, period.” (The Zieglers’ own children attend private schools.)
Her plan for the training center is to host newly elected school board members from around the country, in groups of roughly 40, for a three-day crash-course in procedure, finance and “open records laws” that new school board members could use to pull lesson plans and library manifests from their public schools. Attendees will get to test their communications skills during an interview in the facility’s podcast room, or a Fox News appearance from the TV studio. Ziegler will send them home with the tools they need for the fight, plus some “Cups of Courage” mugs.
“A core academic education is not what the behemoth of the education industrial complex has become over the last couple decades,” Ziegler says of her mission. “You’re up against an unbelievable giant. It’s a literal David versus Goliath moment.”
Five miles up the coast, an institutional takeover was already well underway. Here, however, it was the conservative crusaders who had stepped into the role of Goliath.
On Aug. 10, at least a dozen police officers, many in flak jackets, were stationed in front of the campus conference center at the New College of Florida. They waved metal detector wands and searched the bags of anyone who approached the entrance, which was cordoned off with yellow police tape.
No crime had been committed, but something was about to be killed.
The school’s monthly board of trustees meeting didn’t use to be such a guarded occasion. The 73-year-old public college in northern Sarasota was once an idyll of liberal-minded higher education with a gay-friendly reputation where students could take Oxford-style tutorials in lieu of lecture classes and receive written evaluations in lieu of grades.
At one point, New College had more National Merit Scholars per capita than the Ivies. Lately, its academic stature has suffered from low enrollment and graduation rates. In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis, gearing up for a presidential run as a Republican culture-warrior-in-chief, pounced on the enfeebled school. He appointed a half-dozen new trustees to conservatize the college’s culture from the top down — much like Bridget Ziegler and company’s ambition for K-12 schools. (She had also served on the search committee to find New College’s president.)
Since then, trustee gatherings had been sites of perpetual protest; police officers would remove two parents from the meeting I attended for outbursts.
New interim president Richard Corcoran, a former speaker of the Florida House and DeSantis education commissioner, has vowed that every detail at New College going forward would be “mission-aligned,” a phrase that Corcoran seems to use as shorthand for not woke. There’s a new core curriculum in the works that requires humanities courses to include selections from the “Great Books” — in other words, the Western canon. The gender-neutral bathroom signs on campus have been replaced with something decidedly more gendered. Student murals have been painted over white.
Nearly three dozen members of the existing student body have transferred to Hampshire College, a private institution in Massachusetts and a kindred spirit of New College (there are no grades there, either) that has offered reduced tuition to fleeing students. More than 40 faculty members have also left. Of the school’s 328 incoming students, more than a third are athletes, mostly male. They’ll play for New College Mighty Banyans, a root-ridden tree with thick biceps and an angry stare.
At the trustees meeting, it was Christopher Rufo staring out at the security-vetted attendees. The DeSantis board appointee beamed into the meeting from his home in the Seattle area, his head projected onto a screen above the trustees’ horseshoe table like the Wizard of Oz.
Rufo was previously known for hijacking the once-obscure academic term “critical race theory” and helping conservatives turn it into a blunt instrument to attack teachers, books and institutions that suggest racism still influences American society. He was openly hostile to the student culture at New College and bid good riddance to the students and faculty who’d left. He sees the college’s transformation as necessary — and something that could be replicated elsewhere in higher education, a perennial target for conservatives trying to stamp out liberal influences on the younger generation.
“New College is at the vanguard,” Rufo later said in an interview, “at the very front, of this effort to say, ‘wait a minute, the public is not interested in funding a left-wing, social justice ghetto institution.’”
Near the end of the meeting, Rufo raised his hand.
“There’s one program in particular that, in my view, is not compatible with our mission,” he said. It was time to “take the necessary and proper steps to terminate the Gender Studies program beginning with the 2024 enrollees.”
Amy Reid, the board’s faculty appointee, looked away from the screen, stone-faced. Reid has taught French at New College for nearly 30 years. And, it so happened, she was also the director of the very program Rufo was seeking to dismantle.
She had known this was coming, and she’d prepared a rebuttal.
“Women’s and Gender Studies has been central to the liberal arts curriculum for more than 50 years,” Reid said. She vowed that she would not give up on the program. “We will, like others before us, persist,” she said. She concluded with a quote from Michèle Lalande, a poet of Quebec’s révolution tranquille: “I am not alone.”
The audience applauded. Rufo smirked. Shortly after, his motion passed.
“This needs to go on the record as the first time this board has made a substantive attack on our academic program,” Reid said as the gavel fell.
“It needs to go on the record that this, like diversity, equity and inclusion, is a deep violation of the principles of this college,” said Matthew Spaulding, one of the recently installed New College board members, who is also the dean of the Washington, D.C., campus of Hillsdale College, an evangelical institution. “And, as such, we did the right thing.”
The college’s only full-time Gender Studies faculty member quit within days of the board meeting. Reid is still there. When she thinks about how the new leaders are transforming New College, she remembers an instance of callow authority from childhood.
“When I was a little kid, I had a card game where I made up the rules,” Reid says. “Every time there was something I didn’t like, I would make up a new, special rule so I could win, no matter what.”
amara Solum, a Sarasota local whose daughter graduated from New College in the spring, says she’s sensed a vibe shift among the people upset by what was being done to their institution. “At first, everyone’s like, ‘we’re fighting, we’re fighting, we’re fighting,” she said. “Now, a lot of people are like ‘we’re fleeing, we’re fleeing, we’re fleeing.’”
Exactly how powerful are the hardcore conservatives in Sarasota County? Can the activists make their MAGAmerican dreams everyone else’s like-it-or-not reality?
The area has been solidly Republican since the 1950s, thanks in part to a steady flow of socially conservative Midwesterners migrating to the Gulf Coast for their golden years. The 21st century has seen an even redder shift: Trump won the county by 28,260 votes in the 2020 election, just 12 years after Barack Obama lost Sarasota County by only 211. Even so, there are non-MAGA forces at work here, too. More than 44 percent of the county voted against Trump last election, and the recent right-wing revolutions have faced headwinds.
Flynn and his allies failed to install their chosen candidate to the head of the Sarasota County GOP. Bridget Ziegler, meanwhile, has lately been losing votes on her own school board, despite its conservative majority. Her proposal to extend a contract to an “ideology-free” K-12 consulting firm failed, as did her push to cut funding for social and emotional learning programs. Ziegler sees this as a result of complacency among the activists who helped elect her fellow conservatives. “My local school district is a perfect example of what happens when we work really hard to get everyone elected, and then people just abandon you,” she told me.
“They’ve lost the bulk of the population,” says Carol Lerner, a local liberal activist. “That’s in large part of us bringing people to the meetings. We really did change the narrative.”
Within the conservative oases of Sarasota County, meanwhile, a new narrative was beginning. At the time of my visit, the We the People Health & Wellness Center had not opened yet, but everything was in place. A fresh flower arrangement sat in the waiting room. Saline bags for the IV drips were stacked in a storage room down the hall. Stuffed animals sat on shelves outside the pediatric examination rooms. A waterfall fountain trickled under the dim lights of the nutraceuticals room. Gauzy curtains had been hung between each reclining chair, for privacy, so future clients would be able to receive a solution of their choosing in peace.
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Kara Voght is a politics reporter for the Style section at The Washington Post, writing features and profiles that capture the political moment. Her work has also appeared in the Atlantic, the New Republic, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones. She grew up in Eastern Connecticut and lives in Washington. Twitter