The clash between the governor, a likely 2024 presidential candidate, and one of Florida’s major employers highlights the anti-corporate mood of a Republican Party reshaped by former president Donald Trump’s populism. This Republican souring on big business — and enthusiasm to use government power against it — already has rattled companies such as Facebook, Coke, Apple and Delta and may just be getting started.
“It’s a different day and age. In the last 30 years, you’ve seen the big multinational corporations prioritize their own short-term bottom line over American workers,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “When you see the behavior of these corporations that have sent jobs overseas, that have weakened the American worker, that frankly have weakened American industry and, at the same time, many of them pursuing a monopoly size status and control … It’s a set of dangers there that we need to confront.”
During the Trump administration, many Republican lawmakers abandoned party orthodoxy on trade and deficits and embraced protectionist tariffs and budget-busting spending that they would previously have shunned.
Now, even with Trump defeated, leading Republicans are slamming CEOs for acting “woke” and exercising excessive influence over the U.S. economy. Some lash corporate leaders with rhetoric that resembles that of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, accusing them of placing greed above principle and even of aiding the country’s enemies.
Several of the party’s most prominent voices are taking a fresh look at policies on technology, labor, antitrust and finance and, in some cases, are proposing regulations or laws that would explicitly target giant companies.
“There is a well-represented faction on the political right that is openly hostile to Big Business,” said economist Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute. “It has real policy significance. It’s not just rhetoric.”
In Florida, DeSantis has signed an executive order and legislation forbidding businesses from requiring customers to provide evidence of vaccination. Each violation is subject to a $5,000 fine, meaning one ship could incur millions of dollars in potential penalties. DeSantis said any vaccine requirement would create “huge” privacy issues and lead to individuals handing over personal information to “big corporations.”
DeSantis sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April seeking an unconditional return to cruising. A court-ordered mediation effort ran aground Thursday with the governor’s office blasting the CDC’s “ridiculous and unlawful” regulations.
The CDC requires 95 percent of passengers and 98 percent of crew members to be vaccinated, fearing the tight quarters at sea are ideal for the spread of infectious-disease. In the pandemic’s early days, one of the first known outbreaks occurred aboard a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess, sparking an international scramble to offload hundreds of infected passengers.
It has become clear in recent days that the cruise ship industry does not have a uniform policy regarding how to proceed on vaccines.
On June 4, Royal Caribbean said passengers are “strongly recommended,” though not required, to get vaccinated before traveling aboard its first post-pandemic cruise from Miami on July 2.
Carnival Cruise Line said Monday it will require vaccines when it resumes U.S. cruises from Galveston, Texas on July 3. The company plans Friday to announce its rules for July sailings from Miami.
DeSantis’s resistance to companies’ use of so-called vaccine passports, which would certify an individual’s immunization, is just the latest rejection of corporate preferences in favor of cultural appeals that resonate with Trump voters.
The Florida governor remains at odds with certain cruise ship operators such as Frank Del Rio, chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings. Del Rio, with more than 25 years industry experience, says vaccinating 100 percent of the crew and passengers is the key to winning back customers spooked by the pandemic.
“We’re going to have one rule, and one rule only, and that is, at least in the beginning, 100 percent of our guests and our crew will be vaccinated,” Del Rio said on an earnings call in May.
Del Rio told investors that federal law will likely override DeSantis’s refusal to permit businesses to require proof of vaccination. But if it does not, Norwegian may move its ships from Miami to the Caribbean.
That would cost Florida. The cruise industry employs roughly 159,000 state residents and contributes $9 billion to the state’s economy, according to Andria Muniz-Amador, director of public affairs for PortMiami. In its last pre-pandemic year, the port, which bills itself as “the cruise capital of the world,” welcomed more than 1,200 cruise ships and nearly 6 million passengers.
After this story appeared online, Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s press secretary, said the governor’s fight against CDC mandates had contributed to the resumption of cruises from U.S. ports.
“His stance isn’t anti-business — it’s anti-bureaucratic overreach,” Pushaw said, adding: “Governor DeSantis has never hesitated to take a stand against corporations that attempt to overpower or subvert individual rights.”
Republicans’ populist turn, breaking with the party’s laissez-faire past, has its roots in the last administration. Though he boasted of loosening regulations, Trump wielded federal powers to pick winners and losers throughout the economy.
He ordered power plants to purchase energy from uncompetitive coal and nuclear plants and let the Commerce Department choose which companies could avoid costly tariffs on industrial metals.
He also attacked companies, such as Amazon, General Motors and Harley Davidson for their business practices, including factory locations. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“The real fault line was trade. The party of free trade based in the suburbs became the party of quotas, tariffs and industrial policy based in rural America,” said Chris Krueger, a strategist with Cowen Washington Research Group. “It just flipped on its head.”
The result is a Republican Party whose members are increasingly comfortable with government involvement in business decisions.
Hawley, who says multinationals have pursued a “mega-globalization” agenda at workers’ expense, earlier this year proposed legislation requiring corporations with annual revenue of at least $1 billion to pay an hourly minimum wage of $15, a mandate that would likely apply to more than 1,000 companies.
The Missouri Republican, another possible 2024 contender, has criticized “elites” on Wall Street and proposed an antitrust push to combat growing economywide industrial concentration, starting with technology and pharmaceuticals.
“There’s hardly a major industry in this country that has not grown more concentrated in the last 30 years, and that’s a big problem,” he said, blaming it for disappointing long-term wage growth.
DeSantis, too, favors action against executives he disparages as “the leftist oligarchs of Silicon Valley.” Last month, he signed a bill banning social media companies from “deplatforming” political candidates. Industry groups representing Facebook, Amazon, Google and Twitter have sued the governor, alleging the law is unconstitutional.
The GOP’s populist transformation is especially striking since so many CEOs are party supporters. Researchers led by Alma Cohen, an economist at Harvard Law School, reviewed the political contributions of 3,800 CEOs over an 18-year period and found 57 percent gave at least two-thirds of their political donations to Republican candidates while just 19 percent similarly backed Democrats.
To be sure, there are limits to the GOP makeover. While Big Tech and Wall Street are under fire, many other large or concentrated industries retain Republican support, such as oil and gas producers.
The party remains uniformly opposed to President Biden’s call to raise the corporate tax rate, which was cut in 2017 from 35 percent to 21 percent, back to 28 percent.
Likewise, even as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others talk of rebranding the GOP as a “workers’ party” and giving workers a greater say in corporate decision-making, they remain hostile to organized labor and the Davis Bacon Act, a federal law that requires contractors to pay the locally prevailing wage rates determined by the government.
Geoff Kabaservice, the author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party,” said the anti-corporatist activity is largely performative.
“The road to popularity is to be seen standing up to the big institutions of American life for the little people, and that’s what DeSantis is trying to do,” said Kabaservice, vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center. “I don’t think the DeSantis position ultimately is tenable. But it may be politically worth it to him.”
The Republican rethinking accelerated over the past year amid protests following the murder of George Floyd. The response of many CEOs to demands from customers and employees to speak out on issues such as societal racism, climate change and voting rights has left Republican politicians itching for a fight.
After several top executives, including those of Apple, Coke, Merck and Major League Baseball, criticized legislation in Georgia that they said restricted voting, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Minority Leader, vowed they would face “serious consequences.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called for revoking MLB’s antitrust exemption while Republicans in the Georgia legislature sought to ax a jet fuel subsidy worth $35 million to Delta Air Lines.
Corporations in consumer-facing industries face a combustible environment. They must try to sell products such as beer, athletic shoes or airline tickets to Americans who marched for Black Lives Matter as well as to the insurrectionists who stormed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6th.
“It’s not the business community that’s moving,” said one CEO who asked not to be named to speak candidly. “It’s the populist wing of the Republican Party that’s moving, and that’s actually a big part of the party.”
Other Republicans said the corporate chieftains were guilty of selective indignation, attacking alleged Democratic shortcomings at home while turning a blind eye to those in overseas markets.
“#Apple lectures Americans, but does the bidding of Beijing because they want access to Chinese customers and enslaved person labor,” Rubio tweeted last month, following a report that seven Apple suppliers in China had employed Muslim detainees in Xinjiang, where U.S. officials say genocide is occurring.
A spokesman for Apple declined to respond.
With populists ascendant in the GOP, and the jockeying for 2024 underway, some CEOs fear the anti-corporate mood will grow. On Thursday, Rubio accused Wall Street of “helping to finance the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to weaken and ultimately replace American leadership.”
In Florida, meanwhile, Taryn Fenske, the governor’s communications director, denied reports of a potential compromise over vaccine passports. DeSantis appeared on Fox News to discuss another front in his war with big business, telling Tucker Carlson he had withstood corporate pressure when he signed legislation this week barring transgender athletes from girls’ sports.
“You can’t be cowed by these organizations, particularly by woke corporations, from doing the right thing,” DeSantis said.