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Opinion Ron DeSantis’s war on Disney points to an ominous GOP future

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (Tristan Wheelock, Bloomberg)

When Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida Republicans move forward with action against Disney World for opposing his law on teaching sex and gender, it will be more than just a slimy and indefensible rearguard effort to punish a private company for violating GOP orthodoxy.

It will also point to a potential future Republican Party that envisions an expanded use of state power to fight the culture wars in a much broader and more pernicious sense.

In coming days, DeSantis is expected to revoke Disney’s self-governing privileges in Orlando. The Florida Senate just passed such a measure, and the state House could vote on it Thursday.

DeSantis is plainly salivating at signing this, perhaps on Fox News, where millions of 2024 GOP primary voters would thrill as a “woke corporation” is brought to its knees. Okay, Disney will probably be fine, but this might end up hurting ordinary Floridians.

That’s because, while it’s still unclear how this will play out, the Reedy Creek Improvement District allows Disney quasi-governing powers over the area, whose basic governing services are funded by Disney. So experts and local officials fear that revocation of the arrangement might mean a tax hike on locals to fund replacement services.

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In a sense, then, Florida Republicans might end up essentially raising taxes on Florida voters to “own the libs.” Take that, woke elites!

Before you say, “Who cares, Disney doesn’t deserve any special privileges,” let’s be clear: This isn’t about whether Disney’s state-created privileges are good or bad policy. There are reasonable arguments for reforming some of those privileges, such as its copyright protections.

Rather, what’s at issue is the use of such a policy as retaliation against Disney for taking a stand on DeSantis’s law. The measure bars or restricts instruction on sexual orientation and gender orientation in a way that’s plainly designed to chill even the most routine discussion of LGBTQ topics.

Disney opposes the law on the grounds that “it could be used to unfairly target” LGBTQ kids and families. And this is an absolutely understandable fear.

But here again, the law’s specifics are beside the point. You don’t have to back Disney’s stance to agree that the company should not be punished with a change in government policy for expressing its opinion of the law.

So what does this tell us about a possible GOP future? Well, on multiple fronts, the Republican Party is growing much more inclined to use state power to fight the culture wars, well beyond just DeSantis.

In an interview published this week, J.D. Vance told Vanity Fair that he envisions a kind of “de-Baathification” or a “de-woke-ification” of the “institutions of the left.”

Vance, who’s running for Senate in Ohio in the New Right nationalist vein, said that if Donald Trump is reelected president, he should “fire every single midlevel bureaucrat” and “every civil servant in the administrative state,” and “replace them with our people.”

It’s worth taking this seriously. Other members of that New Right movement recently told me they envision a ramped-up use of the state to impose a post-liberal moral order, justified by hyperbolic visions of the supposedly hegemonic power of the left over our institutions.

Meanwhile, GOP elected officials seem to be moving this way. Congressional Republicans have vowed retaliation against companies for opposing Georgia’s voter suppression bill and for cooperating with the congressional investigation into Trump’s coup attempt.

And DeSantis is a front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. Importantly, he’s flaunting his willingness to use state power this way as a selling point for the presidency.

So let’s run a thought experiment. What might it look like if a President DeSantis took this view of the administrative state and decided to wield his power this way?

Donald Moynihan, an expert on the administrative state at Georgetown, says you can envision various scenarios. Such a president, he said, might use regulatory agencies staffed with right-thinking political employees (which Vance explicitly wants) to harass or investigate companies perceived as “culturally disloyal.”

Another possibility, Moynihan said, might be to change the tax status of liberal-leaning foundations. Those are already another favorite target of right-wing populists.

Faced with a president “who’s fully willing to use the powers of the administrative state,” Moynihan told me, such foundations might refrain from advocating for various causes or fund certain types of research, “because it’s not worth the potential risks.”

What if such a president were backed in this project by congressional leadership? Josh Chafetz, a Georgetown law professor who studies Congress, says you could see legislation targeted at offending companies, and even if it didn’t survive the courts, it could still function in a punitive way.

Those companies would sink large sums of money into litigating against such measures, even as Congress relied on taxpayer-funded lawyers on their side, Chafetz told me, meaning “the onus of the expense would fall on the companies, which would have a chilling effect.”

So a lot is at stake in how DeSantis’s war with Disney turns out. To glimpse the future, just look at what DeSantis is saying and doing right now. And given all the accolades he’s getting from the right, does anyone doubt that this could get a whole lot worse?