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Opinion Ron DeSantis’s repulsive war on Disney will soon face a reckoning

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (Tristan Wheelock/Bloomberg News)
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The stench of presidential ambition around Ron DeSantis has grown so thick that it resembles Charlie Brown pal Pigpen’s visible cloud of filth, and key to the Florida governor’s hopes is finding a way to capture the political energies unleashed by Donald Trump.

DeSantis must accomplish this while carving out a distinct path from that of the former president, who might run again himself. DeSantis’s new war with Disney appears to fit the bill perfectly.

As a good report from NBC News chronicles, DeSantis’s fellow Republicans see this battle as key to burnishing his national anti-“woke” brand. DeSantis escalated his attacks on Disney amid its criticism of the law he signed limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.

But DeSantis’s war on Disney will soon face a reckoning. A big question is whether DeSantis will seek to revoke Disney’s state tax incentives as a weapon in the war over that measure, which opponents call the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

If so, that could alienate Republicans who are fine with a bit of performative culture-warring but want to keep corporations happy where it really counts, i.e., on their bottom line. If not, that could disappoint right-wingers who actively want Republicans to wield state power wherever possible to bring “woke” corporations to their knees.

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Disney came out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill after facing intense internal pressure from employees. Disney argued that it “could be used to unfairly target” LGBT kids and families.

That’s a perfectly reasonable fear. The law outlaws “instruction” in “sexual orientation or gender identity” that is not “age-appropriate.” Legal experts note that such vague wording could allow conservative parents to claim violations in many typical situations, such as a teacher mentioning gay families, or a kid discussing her gay parents, or a teacher helping a transgender student seek counseling.

Regardless, DeSantis has gone on the attack. He’s raising money off Disney’s opposition, labeling it “radical.” And he recently suggested that he might target Disney’s “special privileges” in the state.

That’s repulsive stuff. Even some Republicans have noted that Disney is simply exercising its right to weigh in on a public issue, one that matters deeply to many customers and employees, and shouldn’t face the threat of state retaliation for doing so.

Regardless, under questioning from reporters, DeSantis then clarified he is not targeting Disney’s enormously lucrative tax breaks, one of which totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars to encourage Disney to move more than 2,000 employees to Florida from California. DeSantis justified this by claiming all companies are treated equally by such tax incentives.

But as Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) points out, Disney benefits from a tax incentive program only available to very large corporations. Eskamani says DeSantis should repeal Disney’s tax breaks in order to actually treat businesses equally, as a matter of good policy, rather than allowing that status quo to remain while going after Disney in a merely “performative" way.

“Nothing about Disney’s business model has changed whatsoever,” Eskamani told me.

James Clark, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, points to a subtle game at work here. Disney has poured enormous sums into the campaign coffers of DeSantis and GOP state legislatures, according to the Orlando Sentinel, though some Democrats have benefited as well.

DeSantis’s rhetorical attacks on Disney might not be enough to imperil future Disney donations to Republicans. Meanwhile, if Republicans keep its corporate interests largely protected, it could help sustain that arrangement.

“Disney has been very helpful to the Republican Party,” Clark told me. “I don’t think Republicans want to do anything to jeopardize that flow of money.” Disney has said it’s reassessing its political donations in response to the new law, but that will likely blow over.

Yet here’s the thing: Some on the right, particularly the new nationalists seeking to build a post-Trump Trumpism, actually do believe the state should be weaponized to fight the culture wars as aggressively as possible. Fox News’s Laura Ingraham is urging Republicans to use every tool of government possible to break corporations economically — as a weapon of retaliation against excessive wokeness.

It’s sometimes said that Republicans are turning against large corporations in a fundamental shift of economic ideology. But that’s mostly nonsense. Republicans have mainly threatened retaliation for corporate transgressions such as standing up for African Americans’ voting rights, trying to protect customers and workers with vaccine mandates, cooperating with a congressional investigation into Trump’s insurrection, and now, speaking up for LGBT people.

Indeed, one prominent right-wing activist explicitly told Michelle Goldberg that attacks on Disney are all about teaching it “the lesson” that “they should stay out of politics.” The goal is to wield state power to dissuade corporations from empowering the enemy known as social liberalism.

Yet at some point you’d think some on the right will want to see actual corporate blood on the floor. As a Know Your Enemy podcast powerfully details, the use of state government power to punish or stigmatize trans kids and their families is multiplying ferociously across the country. How long until the right wants real results in the war against corporate wokeness?

If so, keeping the old cozy relationship between Disney and Florida Republicans such as DeSantis largely intact just won’t cut it anymore.