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As DeSantis signs anti-Disney bill, ‘gangster government’ returns

In 2009, Republicans condemned the very idea of "gangster government" and officials bullying businesses into compliance. In 2022, the GOP is ... different.

Just months into his presidency, Barack Obama faced a long list of crises, including the prospect of the U.S. auto industry collapsing. The Democratic White House put together a controversial — but extremely effective — rescue plan that required, among other things, some creditors to accept some losses.

The right was apoplectic about the federal government’s bold intervention in the free market. In fact, from Capitol Hill to conservative media, Republicans pushed a specific phrase with great enthusiasm in 2009: “gangster government.” The public was told, repeatedly and with a level of vigor bordering on hysteria, that the Obama administration was trying to “bully“ private entities into doing what the government wanted.

“[T]hat ain’t the American way,” Larry Kudlow declared on CNBC in May 2009.

These principles were, of course, conveniently forgotten when Donald Trump took office and the Republican tried to bully all kinds of companies into submission, including Goodyear. And GM. And Harley-Davidson. And Nordstrom, Amazon.com, and AT&T, among others.

But to fully appreciate the degree to which Republicans have gone from denouncing to embracing “gangster government,” consider just how far Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has gone. NBC News reported:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed into law legislation that would eliminate the Walt Disney Co.’s special self-governing status in the area around its Orlando theme parks, in a move widely seen as retaliation against the company for criticizing a new education law signed by the Republican governor. The bill revokes Disney’s special tax privileges in the state which have been in place since the late 1960s.

It’s worth acknowledging at the outset that there are some caveats to this. First, there are already complex legal questions about whether the governor and the legislature have the sole authority to make such a change, and it’s a safe bet this will be the subject of extensive litigation.

Second, the law doesn’t take effect until June 2023, and a lot can happen over the course of 14 months. Indeed, Florida will hold statewide elections this fall, which will go a long way in setting the Sunshine State’s future course.

Third, Floridians are just now starting to come to terms with the economic implications of the new Republican policy, including the likelihood of significant tax increases for the residents in surrounding counties.

But as relevant as these details are, let’s not miss the forest for the trees. We’re dealing with a controversy in which Disney expressed an opinion about a policy measure, which led DeSantis and his allies to retaliate against the company.

In fact, none of this has been subtle. Circling back to our earlier coverage, Florida Republicans recently approved what some have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” policy, and Disney — a major force in the state — eventually criticized the GOP’s anti-LGBTQ measure.

DeSantis said even mild criticisms could not stand, and the drive to punish Disney began soon after. The GOP governor said the company “crossed the line” by daring to oppose his regressive anti-gay policy after it’d already passed. His lieutenant governor, Republican Jeanette Núñez appeared on Fox News and questioned whether companies like Disney even have the “right to criticize” state policymakers’ work.

For all of DeSantis’ over-the-top boasts about Florida being the “freest” state in the nation, it’s his administration that’s intent on punishing one of his state’s largest businesses for expressing an opinion that’s out of step with the Republican Party’s culture war.

To be sure, there’s no reason to see the Reedy Creek Improvement District — the extraordinary Orlando-area benefits originally afforded to the Disney Corporation in 1967 — as untouchable. But motivations matter, and the idea that a state would punish a corporate giant for falling out of line with the GOP’s rhetorical demands deserves to be seen as a scandal.

As we’ve discussed, there’s ample room for a spirited debate over how policymakers approach special corporate benefits. To have concerns about how Republicans are approaching these issues is not to say that Disney or any other private-sector giant somehow deserves lucrative breaks from politicians.

What matters in this instance, however, is a political party selectively punishing a business because it had the audacity to say something unflattering about anti-LGBTQ politicians. It wasn’t long ago when Republicans seemed perfectly content to leave Disney’s breaks intact, but after the corporation hurt GOP officials’ feelings, it’s suddenly became time for retaliatory measures — in part to punish Disney, and in part to send a message to other corporations that might also be tempted to say things Republicans don’t like.

The larger significance of such a posture is an important shift in the party’s tactics. As The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell explained in a recent column, “The GOP no longer argues that free markets, rather than government, should choose ‘winners and losers.’ In today’s Republican Party, the primary economic role of the state is not to get out of the way. It is, instead, to reward friends and crush political enemies.”

Quite right. As we’ve discussed, what we’re witnessing isn’t a change in Republican Party orthodoxy related to the free market, but rather, a corruption of that orthodoxy. Those who dare to express societal opinions that Republicans find inconvenient should expect adverse governmental consequences.

The power of the state, the argument goes, must serve as an extension of the Republican Party’s grievances, and businesses whose opinions are deemed unacceptable will be punished accordingly. Corporate giants that appear “woke” should expect to be bullied into submission by those controlling the levers of governmental power.

Any chance we’ll hear concerns from those who decried “gangster government” in 2009? Will those who decried efforts to “bully“ private entities into doing what the government wanted 13 years ago stay silent as DeSantis & Co. engage in far more abusive tactics?