Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ retaliatory war on Disney escalated further on Monday, when he signed a bill that strips the company of its special self-governing status in Florida. Disney’s self-governed district in central Florida, which has allowed the company for decades to raise taxes and issue bonds in the area to maintain and build infrastructure for the Walt Disney World Resort, was always a weird arrangement. But DeSantis’ attack on it was not inspired, as he’s suggested, by a meaningful agenda to rein in corporate power. It was instead an attempt to punish Disney for daring to speak out against his homophobic policies and to bully the company into complying with his crusade against so-called wokeness.
DeSantis’ policy can be seen as a new spin on former President Donald Trump’s tendency to whimsically accost corporations on Twitter during his presidency. This time, though, it’s not about harassing companies for building factories abroad, but about trying to stigmatize them for daring to dissent from a politician's reactionary political project. It’s not particularly effective, but it’s cotton candy for the Republican base.
He’s angling to make his war with Disney a distinguishing feature of his personal brand of populism as he gears up for a widely anticipated 2024 White House bid.
The fight between DeSantis and Disney began last year when Disney’s CEO at the time, Bob Chapek, criticized DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was designed to restrict discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, as a “challenge to basic human rights.” Incensed, DeSantis first responded by slamming Disney for having too much power in the state and inviting lawmakers to dissolve Disney’s special self-governing district. After that policy raised some complicated logistical and fiscal questions, he pivoted strategies — and now he’s signed a bill that lets him take the district over and appoint the members of its governing body.
“Today the corporate kingdom finally comes to an end,” he said at the bill signing. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and accountability will be the order of the day.”
Gov. DeSantis ends self-governing status for DisneyFeb. 28, 202303:05
DeSantis renamed the district from “Reedy Creek Improvement District” to “the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District” and stacked its governing board with activist right-wingers, including Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, an activist outlet that focuses on school board meetings, and Michael Sasso, president of the Federalist Society’s Orlando chapter. Perhaps most shockingly, DeSantis has described the board as an ideological pressure group on Disney’s entertainment program, which he says has strived to “inject woke ideology” into children. “I think all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate,” DeSantis said. (People who are less likely to appreciate the new board: supporters of the First Amendment.)
It’s unclear what, if any, effect that board will have on how Disney behaves, considering that Disney has a significant amount of leverage. Disney World is the biggest employer in central Florida and attracts tens of millions of tourists to the state each year; the company that owns it, Disney, is one of the biggest and most influential corporations in the world. The company certainly has the resources to withstand a bit of controversy if it wishes to.
Even on the level of administration of municipal matters, so far experts estimate that the board takeover isn’t necessarily going to change how things are run in Disney World’s district. “In terms of the day-to-day operation of the district, it doesn’t look like much is going to change,” Aubrey Jewett, associate professor at the University of Central Florida, told NBC News.
But what seems to matter more to DeSantis is cultivating a narrative. He’s angling to make his war with Disney a distinguishing feature of his personal brand of populism as he gears up for a widely anticipated 2024 White House bid.
It’s important to note how thin that populism is. DeSantis of course didn’t care about Disney having too much power in Florida until after its then-CEO criticized his policy designed to attack the LGBTQ community. But even as an act of political revenge, it's not too substantive so far. Crucially, his takeover of the district has not unraveled Disney’s special tax status in the state that saves the company millions of dollars. Nor has his agenda to create corporate “accountability” had anything to say about how Disney might treat its workers better in terms of pay or work conditions.
Sadly, most of the Republican base is unlikely to see through DeSantis’ theatrics. It’s a high-profile culture war spectacle, yet at the same time it isn’t particularly easy for anyone to understand. (How does a theme park’s semi-autonomous administrative status work, exactly?) It’s also unlikely anyone on the right will bother to follow up on whether this maneuvering mattered.
DeSantis’ behavior here could potentially parallel Trump singling out manufacturers such as Carrier and Ford on Twitter for opening up factories outside of the U.S. While those tweets did sometimes affect companies’ decisions to relocate their factories, eventually they learned to take the temporary heat and ignore Trump, knowing his actions were mostly a form of clicktivism that would pass after a temporary outrage cycle from Trump’s base. They didn’t have a big impact, but they did let Trump do what he did best — posture. DeSantis seems on track to do the same.