HEATHER COX RICHARDSON
MAY 18, 2023
Citing “changing business conditions,” Disney leadership today canceled plans to build an office complex near Orlando, Florida. The construction was estimated to cost about $1 billion, and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity projected it would bring to Florida more than 2,000 jobs with an average salary of $120,000. In his email to employees, Disney’s theme park and consumer products chair Josh D’Amaro made it clear that even more was on the line. He noted that Disney has planned more than $17 billion of construction in Florida, bringing about 13,000 jobs, over the next ten years but suggested that, too, was being reexamined. “I hope we’re able to,” he said.
Disney is locked in a battle with Florida governor Ron DeSantis that began when, under pressure from employees, then–Disney chief executive officer Bob Chapek spoke out against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act. This law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law because its vague language prohibiting instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation seems designed to silence any acknowledgement of LGBTQ Americans in grades K–3, was DeSantis’s pet project.
In retaliation, DeSantis led Florida Republicans to strip Disney of its ability to govern itself as if it were a county—as it has done since its inception in 1967—putting the board that controlled Disney under the control of a team hand-picked by DeSantis. But before the new board took over, the old board quietly and legally handed control of the parks over to Disney.
Apparently furious, DeSantis suggested he would build a competing state park or a prison next to Disney’s Florida theme park. In April, the new board set out to claw power from Disney, while the company announced it will hold its first gay-themed pride event in California and that it will build an affordable housing development in its Florida district, a move that Floridians will like. Meanwhile, with DeSantis’s blessing, the Florida state board of education approved expanding the ban on classroom mention of LGBTQ people to include grades 4–12.
On April 26, Disney sued the governor and those of his top advisors behind the attacks on Disney. The lawsuit noted that for more than 50 years, Disney “has made an immeasurable impact on Florida and its economy, establishing Central Florida as a top global tourist destination and attracting tens of millions of visitors to the State each year.” But, it said, “[a] targeted campaign of government retaliation—orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech— now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit called out DeSantis’s actions as “patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional. But,” it said, “the Governor and his allies have made it clear they do not care and will not stop.” The company said it felt forced to sue for protection “from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials.”
The fight between DeSantis and Disney illustrates the dramatic ideological change in the Republican Party in the last two years. No longer committed to keeping the government weak to stay out of the way of business development, the party is now committed to creating a strong government that enforces Christian nationalism.
This is a major and crucially important political shift.
From the earliest days of the Reagan Revolution, those leaders who wanted to slash the federal government to end business regulation and cut the social safety net recognized that they did not have the votes to put their program in place. To find those votes, they courted racists and traditionalists who hated the federal government’s protection of civil rights. Over time, that base became more and more powerful until Trump openly embraced it in August 2017, when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
As he moved toward the techniques of authoritarians, his followers began to champion the system that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán called “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy” in his own country. Orbán argued that the principle of equality in liberal democracy undermines countries by attacking the national culture. Instead, he called for an end to multiculturalism—including immigration—and any lifestyle that is not based on the “Christian family model.” He seized control of universities to make them preach his values.
Today’s Republican leaders openly admire Orbán and appear to see themselves as the vanguard of a “post-liberal order.” They believe that the central tenets of democracy—free speech, religious liberty, academic freedom, equality before the law, and the ability of corporations to make decisions based on markets rather than religious values—have destroyed national virtue. Such a loss must be combated by a strong government that enforces religious values.
Right-wing thinkers have observed with approval that DeSantis’s Florida is “our American Hungary.” Indeed, DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law appears to have been modeled on Orbán’s attacks on LGBTQ rights, which he has called a danger to “Western civilization.” DeSantis’s attack on the New College of Florida, turning a bastion of liberal thought into a right-wing beachhead, imitated Orbán’s attack on Hungary’s universities; on Monday, DeSantis signed three more bills that undermine the academic freedom of all the state universities in Florida by restricting what subjects can be taught and by weakening faculty rights.
DeSantis’s attack on Disney is yet another attack on the tenets of liberal democracy. He is challenging the idea that Disney leaders can base business decisions on markets rather than religion and exercise free speech.
There is another aspect of the Republicans’ turn against democracy in the news today. If democracy is a threat to their version of the nation, it follows that any institution that supports democracy should be destroyed. Today, the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, led by Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), continued its attack on the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Ranking member Representative Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) pointed out that Jordan was violating committee rules by refusing to let Democrats on the committee see the transcripts he claims to have from a whistleblower. Other committee members noted that two of the witnesses have been paid by Trump loyalist Kash Patel.
Plaskett warned: “The rules don’t apply when it comes to the Republicans.... It’s all part and parcel of the Republicans’ attempt to make Americans distrust our rule of law so that when 2024 comes around and should their candidate not win, more and more people will not believe the truth. The truth matters.”
And so does power. Although House Republicans are trying to protect Representative George Santos (R-NY), who was just indicted on 13 counts, by sending his case to the Republican-dominated Ethics Committee rather than allowing a vote on whether to expel him, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) introduced articles of impeachment against President Biden.
Also today, the far-right House Freedom Caucus has called for an end to any discussions of raising the debt ceiling until the Senate passes its bill calling for extreme budget cuts. Forcing the nation into default will cause a global economic panic and, asked if they should compromise with the White House, Representative Bob Good (R-VA) said: “Why would we? We have a winning hand.”