Will Ron DeSantis’s culture war with Disney threaten his White House run?
It has become one of the most compelling Disney stories ever told, but so far without a happily ever after. In fact, the entrance this week of Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis into the race for his party’s presidential nomination only adds gasoline to his raging feud with the theme park giant over diversity and transgender rights.
It’s a battle that is, conversely, both an essential ingredient to the culture war agenda DeSantis believes will win him the White House in 2024; and a headache he could well do without as he attempts to prove his credentials as a fiscally responsible conservative.
From the moment Disney’s bosses dared to speak out in March 2022 against DeSantis’s notorious parental rights in education bill, the so-called “don’t say gay” law that outlaws discussion in Florida’s classrooms of sexual orientation and gender identity, the governor climbed aboard a rollercoaster he doesn’t seem to want to get off.
“DeSantis is running for president and looking for issues that will appeal to potential Republican primary voters all across the country,” said Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, and a long-time Disney observer.
“Certainly the main reason for attacking Disney is he believes it will increase his name recognition and visibility in a positive way, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“The rational response would have been to say we disagree with Disney on the issue, they have a right to speak out, but we passed the bill and it’s time to move on and work with Disney on other issues. That would have been sort of normal, but instead you just have him coming in and doubling down time and time again.”
By way of retaliation for Disney’s criticism, the famously thin-skinned governor has stripped the company of its right to self-govern by installing a hand-picked oversight board stocked with political allies; his cronies filed a lawsuit against Disney seeking to void protections the company awarded itself before the DeSantis takeover; and in an egregious move he threatened to build a new state prison adjacent to its central Florida theme parks.
Touting Florida as the state where “woke comes to die”, DeSantis has attempted to paint Disney as a woke, leftist corporation, with privileges including the right to raise tax revenue and control development on its land that no other business enjoys.
“There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day,” DeSantis boasted in February as he announced Disney was to lose some of its decades-old autonomy.
His supporters, meanwhile, continue to attack the content of Disney’s attractions and movies for “indoctrinating” children, and accuse the company of leaning too far into perceived “woke” issues by addressing misogyny and racism.
Disney, Florida’s largest private employer with an estimated 75,000 cast members, has also not been idle in the face of the attacks.
As well as outsmarting DeSantis by moving to strip the new board of many of its responsibilities before its first meeting, Disney has filed a lawsuit of its own, accusing DeSantis of “a targeted campaign of government retaliation”.
It’s an argument gaining traction even among DeSantis’s Republican colleagues, several of whom have questioned his motives for attacking a private company that attracts tens of millions of visitors to Florida and generates more than $75bn in tourism revenue each year.
“I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative, based on his actions towards Disney,” Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, said last month.
“Where are we headed that if you express disagreement in this country, the government is allowed to punish you? That’s what I always thought liberals did. And now all of a sudden here we are participating in this with a Republican governor.”
As if to prove Christie’s point, Disney this week cancelled plans for a $1bn campus in Florida that would have created 2,000 jobs, citing, in part, “changing business conditions” for its decision.
Jewett, and other analysts, believe the dispute will ultimately be settled in a courtroom, but not before DeSantis milks the controversy on the campaign trail and corporate behemoth Disney enjoys a spell as a somewhat unlikely banner carrier for LGBTQ+ rights.
“It’s funny in some ways. They are progressive, they certainly have more diverse casting and more diverse storylines in their movies and many of their streaming shows,” Jewett said.
“But you’ve often had Democrats and progressives attacking Disney for not being progressive enough as an employer, not treating their workers well, or at least as well as they should and not doing enough. And they also criticize Disney for having its own government, they see it as another example of corporate power.
“We’re also beginning to see some Republican pushback on DeSantis. If it gets to the general election, across many states and looking at the average voter, I think many won’t agree with what DeSantis has done. He could be in for a rude awakening.”
Joe Saunders, political director of the advocacy group Equality Florida, was also cautious of recognising Disney as “woke warriors”.
“I don’t know I’d give much weight to Disney being the front line in the progressive battle against conservative policy. I think it’s more about setting the framework for what norms should be in the US,” he said.
“What does it mean if every time an individual or corporation asserts its belief on public policy that should invite such specific targeted retribution from a political leader with serious and significant executive power? That’s a real important question.”