Florida governor Ron DeSantis has pitched himself to the Republican elite as the candidate of “competent Trumpism” — a form of authoritarian populism for conservatives who worried that Donald Trump was squandering his power, not abusing it. A picture of what that would look like in operation can be seen in DeSantis’s thuggish effort to bully Disney into supporting, or at least refraining from opposing, his “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Last week, DeSantis declared at a press conference that Disney “crossed the line” by saying it would support the repeal of DeSantis’s cherished anti-gay legislation. “We’re going to make sure we’re fighting back when people are threatening our parents and threatening our kids,” he warned.
“Fighting back” turns out not to mean refuting or organizing against Disney’s opposition to the law. It means DeSantis using his legislative majority to punish Disney on unrelated legal issues. On Friday, he claimed he was “shocked” to discover Disney has been granted sweeping autonomy to operate in his state:
“I was shocked to see some of the stuff that’s in there. They can do their own nuclear power plant. Is there any other private company in the state that can just build a nuclear power plant on their own? They’re able to do certain things that nobody else is able to do. So I think they’re right to be looking at this and reevaluating and having an even playing field for everybody, I think is much better than basically to allow one company to be a law onto itself.”
Given that this legal status has been widely known for many decades in the state where DeSantis grew up and now serves as chief executive, the governor was no doubt shocked — the same way Captain Louis Renault was shocked to discover gambling in Casablanca.
One obvious tell that DeSantis doesn’t actually care about Disney’s legal status is that his pretext for punishing the firm has changed. On Friday, he cited Disney’s special legal autonomy. The day before, the “special treatment” was a bill regulating social media that exempted theme-park operators.
Another tell is that the latter bill was signed into law by DeSantis with specific input from his staff, as the Tampa Bay Times reports. If Disney’s legislative clout is leading to outrageous favoritism, voters should be furious with DeSantis.
DeSantis is barely making any effort to hide his intentions. As he tells Fox News, “Six months ago, it would have been unthinkable” that Florida Republican legislators “would be willing to reevaluate those special privileges.” It’s almost as if the special privileges have nothing to do with the reason Republicans are looking to punish Disney! Perhaps there is something Disney can put in DeSantis’s hand that would make the thing in his other hand go away.
What’s relevant to this threat is neither the merits of DeSantis’s school regulations nor of Disney’s status in Florida. Even if you think DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill is wonderful and Disney’s legal status is awful, the governor’s thuggish linkage of the two ought to terrify you.
DeSantis is trying to establish an understanding that major corporations can expect favorable treatment from the government as long as they play along with the ruling party’s political agenda. They are allowed — nay, encouraged — to get involved in politics on the condition that they take the correct position. But should they take the wrong position, they will find themselves under legal scrutiny. Suddenly, the regulatory noose will tighten.
This is the method Donald Trump used to intimidate firms with employees who gave him a hard time. Amazon lost a lucrative Pentagon contract in retribution for Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post, and Trump attempted to block a merger by CNN’s parent company to finish the network.
This is also a method that Trump’s favorite dictators — like Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin — use to control the political debate in their countries. DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw has fired off more than a dozen tweets celebrating Orbán’s victory in Hungary and ridiculing the idea that his regime is repressive or dangerous in any way. When American conservatives tell us Orbán’s version of competitive authoritarianism is the form of government they aspire to, then show us what it would look like in practice, we’d best believe them.
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