For the real story of the dueling leadership styles of the Republican Party, look to the courts. As former president Donald Trump battles criminal and civil charges stemming from a payoff to a porn star and an alleged rape, his closest potential rival for the GOP presidential nomination is mounting a legal counteroffensive against Disney. Florida Governor Ron Desantis has clashed against the corporation over its dissent from his plan to program anti-LGBQT+ bigotry into Florida’s public schools, a fight that has rapidly escalated. The Sunshine State’s newly instituted Central Florida Central Tourism District Board of Supervisors—a handpicked panel of DeSantis cronies that includes a pastor who once took to YouTube to suggest that drinking water could turn people gay—convened an emergency meeting to vote unanimously on Monday to sue Disney. The vote was a response to a suit filed last week by the Magic Kingdom’s legal team claiming that the DeSantis administration’s threatened suspension of a long-standing tax abatement for the company was a retaliatory violation of the company’s First Amendment protections after it had protested DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.
Just what the tourism board intends to sue Disney over is not yet clear; the filing is reportedly scheduled for next week, and in the meantime, the panel’s chairman, Martin Garcia, is gesturing toward a blanket repudiation of the board’s governing mandate by Disney. The board had revoked a prior tax deal that Disney struck with its predecessor body, the Ridley Creek Improvement District, which was founded in 1967 to oversee the special taxing district that allows Disney to administer services and streamline policy decisions over its Orlando-adjacent home of Disney World. But in the coded argot of DeSantis-branded persecution at the hands of the woke corporate state, Disney’s objections magically become, as Garcia puts it, an affront to the idea of progress: “In essence, Disney is asking a federal court in Tallahassee to wrestle back the hands of time to 1967, while this board is instead charged legislatively with bringing the district into the 21st century, with new and better policies and practices.”
But apart from alleging that the imagineers of Tomorrowland wish to preside over a legislative Yesterdayland, the point of the board’s actions seems to be the same one driving most of DeSantis’s governing agenda: a bid to flood news cycles with culture-war agitprop to elevate the governor’s profile ahead of his planned run for the presidency, reported to be officially announced later this month. In the bid to continually one-up former president Donald Trump’s own crusade against the sinister machinations of wokeness in our schools and corporate boards, DeSantis needs to be seen as a more disciplined and results-oriented Christian soldier battling the woke mind virus.
Disney might seem an unlikely foil for this exercise in culture-war messaging, since it’s a venerable franchise in all-American branding (even as it doubles, like most such franchises, as a labor-soaking avatar of deregulated and rent-seeking capitalism). But the Florida government’s high-profile confrontation with the Magic Kingdom offers some distinct tactical advantages for a statist right-winger like DeSantis, says longtime Disney watcher and NYU professor of social and cultural analysis Andrew Ross, author of The Celebration Chronicles: The Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Property Values in Disney’s Company Town. “The one thing that distinguishes Disney from other corporations is that its presence is really tied to the land,” Ross notes. “There’s no danger of the corporation leaving. It’s a land development venture. They recently announced that they’ll be spending something like $17 billion on a development project around the Orlando Airport, which will move workers from California into that area. They already have committed themselves to that, and their business model involves land development, in a way that other corporations don’t have to do. It’s a sitting target that’s unmovable, so that even if DeSantis alienates the company, they’re not going to leave.”
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Clarence Thomas Broke the Law. Why Is He Not Being Prosecuted?
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The original DeSantis plan was clearly to use the sweetheart deals that Florida enshrined in Disney’s special tax district as extortion money to get Disney to walk back its opposition to the Don’t Say Gay law. But as other flare-ups of culture-war confrontation in the corporate world have shown, “any association with socially illiberal policy is not good for brands,” Ross says. “And this is why corporations can get treated on the right with the woke brush. Obviously, Disney is right up there because it’s a cultural company. It produces culture, and it’s had a long-standing tolerance for LBTGQ rights.”
What’s more, Ross says, Disney has one of the most belligerent and successful legal teams in corporate America—making it unlikely that the company would quietly accede to DeSantis’s shakedown plan. “Usually, if you pick a fight with Disney’s legal team, you always lose. DeSantis is picking a fight with a goliath, but he does have all this state power behind it.”
The court confrontation will lack the lurid personal content of the current Trump trials, and will likely take years to unfold. “It will be Gradgrindian,” Ross says. “The lawyers will be making bank on both sides.” Yet, for all of its lack of melodrama and tabloid flash, the standoff marks a key ideological inflection point in the mobilization of state power on the right. “There’s a lot riding on this battle,” Ross says. “It’s not just the special case of Florida…. This larger issue is, can right-wing Republicans bring corporations to heel? A win for DeSantis sends a signal about how far right-wing power can bring corporate America into alignment.”
The right recently claimed a provisional victory in this fiercely pitched battle when the organized uproar over Bud Light’s marketing deal with a trans social media figure cowed Anheuser-Busch into revoking the arrangement and disciplining the executives who approved it. And the same dynamic is clearly at play in DeSantis’s parallel takeover of Florida’s state-funded New College. Both are efforts to strong-arm high-profile makers and distributors of cultural consensus into a permanent posture of ideological deference to the right. And both are employing subventions of state funding—either outright subsidies or tax abatements—to extort obedience.
There’s a familiar specter behind such musterings of state power in the service of ideological orthodoxy in the private sector. “There’s a lot of talk about emergent fascism these days,” Ross says. “And the critical stage of emergent fascism is to get captains of industry on board. They’re not yet there, but this would be a big push in that direction.”