The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This Republican about-face is so much worse than ‘cancel culture’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) displays the signed Parental Rights in Education law at a news conference on March 28 in Shady Hills, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

The GOP no longer argues that free markets, rather than government, should choose “winners and losers.”

In today’s Republican Party, the primary economic role of the state is not to get out of the way. It is, instead, to reward friends and crush political enemies.

Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham expressed the new ethos in a recent monologue threatening companies that advocated for LGBTQ rights, ballot access, racial justice and sundry other political stances that are anathema in today’s GOP.

“When Republicans, they get back into power, Apple and Disney need to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table,” Ingraham warned. “Your copyright, trademark protection. Your special status within certain states. And even your corporate structure itself. The antitrust division at Justice needs to begin the process of considering which American companies need to be broken up once and for all for competition’s sake, and ultimately for the good of the consumers who pay the bills.”

This might have been an unusually eloquent articulation of Republicans’ punitive new approach to economic policy, but it is hardly unique to Ingraham.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is furious that Disney has publicly criticized his new law prohibiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity (nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law); beyond using his bully pulpit to rail against Disney’s supposed indecency, he has threatened to cancel Disney’s half-century-old special status under Florida law that enables the company to effectively govern itself on the grounds of its theme parks. Similarly, last year, DeSantis signed a (likely unconstitutional) law to punish tech companies for privately determined content-moderation decisions, and another law that fines private companies that attempt to set vaccination requirements in their workplaces.

Greg Sargent: Ron DeSantis's war on Disney will soon face a reckoning

In other states, such as Georgia, GOP politicians have punished private companies for taking supposedly “woke” stands on issues such as gun violence. Republicans in Congress have likewise tried to use antitrust enforcement and other government levers to punish companies whose public stances on voting rights or internal policies on content moderation they dislike.

This approach to governance was expertly modeled by Donald Trump, who as president frequently used the power of the state to reward friends and punish perceived political enemies.

He did this through tax law, tariff policy and other proposed subsidies that chose winners and losers according to their political allegiances. He selectively enforced energy policies, such as allowing offshore drilling, to dole out favors to friends. He allegedly attempted to block a government contract to Amazon because its founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post; he also tried to raise the prices the retail giant pays for U.S. Postal Service shipping. He launched a bogus antitrust investigation into car companies that had opposed his lax emissions standards. He threatened to revoke the “licenses” of broadcast media firms whose coverage he disliked.

And that’s not getting into all the times he tried to weaponize his presidency to prosecute or otherwise punish politicians and private citizens (rather than companies).

At the time, these behaviors might have seemed like an aberration from standard GOP rhetoric and policy, the ravings and abuses of a would-be authoritarian leader. Occasionally his fellow Republicans even called Trump out on these command-and-control, Soviet-style efforts to intervene in markets and curb free enterprise. Theirs, after all, is a party that spent years complaining about how Democrats had too often tried to rig marketplace rules to favor particular outcomes. (Recall the deluge of campaign ads about Solyndra.)

Beyond their halfhearted complaints, Trump’s fellow partisans did little to restrain him. Now his instincts have infected the rest of the right, from the Republicans in the federal government and Fox News on down.

This is far scarier than the “cancel culture” phenomenon Republicans so often decry.

Cancel culture, however ill-defined, generally refers to the use of voluntary social pressure to punish those whose views are deemed somehow unacceptable — through public rebukes, boycotts, shunnings, firings or other refusals to engage with some persona non grata in the public square. Republicans (like Democrats) have of course engaged in all these behaviors and worse: Trump himself frequently called for boycotts and firings, including over the peaceful expression of political speech.

But now his party is attempting codify these responses into law, using the power and weapons of the state against those who disagree with them.

Last fall, as this evolution of the Republican Party and its open warfare with the business community became increasingly apparent, I urged Democrats to take advantage — to position themselves as the new party of political and economic freedom and the rule of law, and to embrace the prosperity that such values can engender. Instead they have been letting their own populist instincts guide them toward rhetoric and policies that emphasize their own punitive treatment of disfavored companies.

Catherine Rampell: Republicans are losing the support of the business community. Democrats should take advantage.

It’s not too late for Democrats to correct course. Someone has to.