Bob Chapek, Disney’s CEO, was paid $32.5 million last year. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone on that sort of money. Poor Bob, though. He’s caught in the middle of a vicious fight between Florida’s conservative governor Ron DeSantis and Disney’s LGBTQ+ activists and he’s being pummelled from both sides. It’s nasty. Children probably shouldn’t watch.
The story begins with DeSantis’s Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, which passed in March and banned Floridian schoolteachers from discussing sexuality and mutable gender-identities with very young children. America’s progressives despise DeSantis and, it seems, the notion that parents should have more control over what their sprogs are told about sex. They successfully dubbed the legislation the Don’t Say Gay bill, even though it does not forbid saying the word gay.
Hollywood celebrities and talking heads on corporate media went to great lengths to denounce the bill, which worked a treat for DeSantis, because the law passed and the public enjoyed watching the impotent fury of the rich and famous. A polling company found that ‘fully two-thirds of voters believe it is inappropriate for teachers or school personnel to discuss gender identity with children’.
Most Democrats in Florida supported the law too. But Bob Iger, Disney’s former chief wizard, had other ideas. Iger doesn’t get on with Chapek, the man who replaced him; the two appear to have fallen out over mysterious Disney matters during the Covid pandemic. Iger – concerned only about the innocence of youth, no doubt – went on Twitter and CNN to say that he believed the Florida law to be ‘harmful to children’. Sure enough, his intervention put pressure on his successor to condemn DeSantis’s wicked new legislation.
Chapek resisted. ‘Corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds,’ he wrote in a memo. Disney’s LGBTQ+ employees – there are a few – objected. The current CEO soon found himself apologising before a ‘town hall meeting’ of disgruntled staff. Looking not unlike a hostage in a video, Chapek pledged ‘to be a better ally for the LGBTQ+ community’ and apologised for ‘not being the ally that you needed me to be’. As penance, he decreed that Walt Disney Corp’s ‘goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organisations working to achieve that’.
DeSantis took that statement as a declaration of legislative war and struck back, hard. He passed another law to terminate Disney World’s ‘special district’ status in the state of Florida. The status saves the company tens of millions of dollars in tax every year and gives the theme park powers to operate as if it really were its own ridiculously huge magical kingdom. On the floor of the state legislature, Democrats howled in pain as the vote sailed through. Their anguish thrilled radical Republicans and DeSantis fans. Hyper-woke Disney had challenged America’s ascendant new right and the big corporation had been socked in its fat evil mouth. Winning!
DeSantis has been called Trump 2.0 and he clearly has modelled his leadership style on America’s last president. There is a key difference, however. Trump tended to keep the world guessing as to whether he had any idea what he was doing. DeSantis, by contrast, is Harvard-educated, data-driven, strategic. When he makes the left squeal, everybody can tell he knows exactly what he’s up to. In targeting Disney so aggressively, he cleverly exposed the hypocrisy of his opponents.
The American left is meant to oppose big business and tax-dodging. Yet as DeSantis pushed through a law stripping a mega corporation of the mechanism through which it dodges tax, Democrats suddenly cried foul. Progressives started to impersonate Mitt Romney and the Republican party of the past two decades as they harrumphed about how Floridians would end up having to pay the bill. Leftie websites suddenly rediscovered their love of free speech, insisting that America’s First Amendment protected Disney’s right to oppose DeSantis.
Republican radicals find all this whining hilarious. Shut up, losers! The whole episode puts America’s new right back in exactly the populist place it wants to be: against Woke Inc. and on the side of common people. Republican governors have figured out that, in order to thrive, they must show themselves willing to take on the most powerful institutions.
The trick is to advance laws that sound sensible to voters while driving the pundit class crazy. Last year governor Brian Kemp of Georgia passed an Election Integrity Act, which added identification requirements to mail-in ballots and tightened voting procedures. These not unreasonable measures made the Democrats strangely furious. President Joe Biden said, absurdly, that the law was a return to the racist era of Jim Crow. Major League Baseball decided it had to ‘demonstrate our values’ by withdrawing its All-Star game from the state. But Kemp’s popularity grew.
DeSantis has mastered this provocative art. He was accused of ‘mass murder’ when he removed Covid mask mandates and opened up his state ahead of others. But Florida’s economy blossomed and he reaped the benefits. As part of his anti-riot bill, he proposed civil immunity for drivers who rammed their cars into protestors and racketeering charges for organisers of peaceful protests that turned violent. He is expected to win re-election easily later this year. After Trump, he’s the favourite to win the Republican party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential election.
‘All you need is a little bit of magic,’ said Mickey Mouse. As ever, he was right. DeSantis’s jaw-dropping attack on Disney had a similar quality to Elon Musk’s mind-boggling takeover of Twitter this week. Like Musk, DeSantis has that juju of the disruptor: he wins not in spite of the antagonism he provokes but because of it. He understands that 21st-century America is not about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s about crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentations of their trans women. You don’t know you are on top unless you can feel their pain.
Traditional conservatives aren’t altogether comfortable with the new incendiary style in right-wing politics. It all feels a bit Jacobin and anti-capitalist. What had distinguished the movement of William F. Buckley, the party of Lincoln, from the left was a desire to be civil and fair. There are many thousands of other ‘special districts’ across the US; should state governments feel free to target them for political reasons?
America’s new rightists can’t stand such genteel arguments. When it comes to sexuality and children, they believe the opposition is demonic and the majority is on their side. Rich guys like Bob Chapek are simply standing in their way.