In punishing Disney for crossing him, Gov. Ron DeSantis is proving to be a leader who will go where no Florida governor has gone before, taking on the state’s biggest private employer to wield his vast power in a way that thrills supporters for his resoluteness but leaves critics worried about a creeping authoritarian streak.
DeSantis arguably has amassed more political clout within the GOP than any of his predecessors in the Florida governor’s mansion, and is using it in ways that even some conservatives find disconcerting, bulldozing his way through perceived enemies with a free-swinging approach reminiscent of former President donald trump
despues de a series of battles over COVID-19 public health measures and culture war issues made him extremely popular with the Republican base nationwide, DeSantis appears increasingly emboldened.
That was evident this week when the governor quickly pushed through his own congressional redistricting map, along with a separate bill punishing Disney. These were major pieces of legislation that were approved in just 48 hours by a GOP-controlled Legislature eager to please DeSantis.
This is an unchained governor, exercising raw political power with few restraints, and ruling partly by fear as he punishes those who speak out against him, say political experts.
“The governor is somebody who I feel absorbed the lessons of Donald Trump… his kind of bullying style, he’s become kind of an attack dog against people and corporations who don’t obey him,” said New York University history professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat , who studies authoritarian leaders. “I see him as trying to make Florida his own little autocracy in a way.”
There is no analogy in recent Florida history.
“He definitely seems to have more influence over the Legislature than any governor that I’m aware of going back to I’d say the modern era,” said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett, adding that he sees few checks on DeSantis other than possibly the courts.
The governor’s power comes from pushing policies that are wildly popular with many Republicans, but also from his willingness to punch back at critics. That could be part of the calculation, said Jewett, in taking on a powerful company such as Disney.
“It sends a message that he’s willing to go after anybody or any company that opposes his agenda,” Jewett said. “He seems to expect 100% loyalty.”
Donald Trump is famous for belittling and seeking to punish his critics
The approach isn’t new. Trump is famous for belittling and seeking to punish his critics while demanding absolute loyalty from Republican leaders and butting heads with establishment forces in politics, business and the media.
DeSantis is seizing on the “non-status quo approach of Trump” to govern, said University of South Florida emeritus political science professor Susan MacManus.
“This is the most unusual style of any governor in my history of following politics, which has been a long time,” she said. “His willingness to take risks is very unique.”
Much like Trump did nationally, DeSantis is shattering preconceived notions about Florida politics as he charts the GOP’s new path in the state, redefining a party that once was zealously pro-business by taking on the biggest business of all, a beloved and internationally iconic company that anchors Florida’s tourism industry.
DeSantis also is mirroring Trump by endorsing in GOP primaries, which may be helping to keep Republicans in line as he takes political combat to a new level in Florida.
“You have a lot of Republican legislators worried in the back of their minds that if they do not support the governor’s agenda he will come after them,” said UCF’s Jewett. “Worst of all he could endorse a primary opponent and knock them out of office in the next election.”
DeSantis’ power also comes from his ability to channel the current mood of the GOP. In the Trump era, the party is largely defined by what it opposes, namely liberal cultural values, and prioritizes a combative form of politics that pushes back with zeal against opponents.
“Some people right now are in the mood for a fight,” said USF’s MacManus. “The Republicans want people up there fighting for their values.”
DeSantis may have perfected that approach better than anyone else the Trump, and no target seems off limits.
Christian Family Coalition Florida Executive Director Anthony Verdugo believes DeSantis’ style resonates with many conservative and swing voters.
“They’re looking for someone who is going to represent them and speak out for them… and not be afraid to take on the big boys,” he said.
Disney ‘threw the first punch’
Verdugo said Disney “threw the first punch” by injecting itself in to the debate over HB 1557, the legislation officially known as the Parental Rights in Education act but derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Under pressure from employees, Disney CEO Bob Chapek publicly opposed the bill, prompting DeSantis to lash out at Disney. That unleashed a wave of conservative criticism of Disney, but DeSantis has taken it a step further with legislation aimed at punishing the company.
Attacking Mickey Mouse:Florida’s Ron DeSantis attacks Disney over company’s lobbying against ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill
Parental rights law:DeSantis signs into law what critics call the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill
The bill appeals to Disney’s self-governing status, dissolving the Reedy Creek Improvement District that gives Disney broad control over what happens on its properties spanning two counties, 25,000 acres and 38.5 square miles. The legislation sailed through the GOP-majority Legislature’s special session that ended Thursday.
“This is what leadership looks like,” Verdugo said. “The governor and the Legislature have been bullied. They’ve been bullied by one company in the state trying to bring their California values to the Sunshine State.”
Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler, a close ally of the governor whose advocacy on “parental rights” issues helped lay the groundwork for HB 1557, called DeSantis’ willingness to take on Disney “so incredibly refreshing.”
“Tell me that does not get people excited that you have a champion… that nobody’s going to cave based on donors, and stand for principles,” Ziegler said. “I think that’s huge. I don’t think people see that anymore in politics. He is really, truly becoming the face of a new brand and a very necessary one when it comes to leaders.”
Democrats see someone more sinister — a governor abusing his power to silence those exercising their constitutional right to criticize the government.
“This bill is very frightening, it is extremely frightening because we all know that this bill is political retribution,” Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said before the Disney legislation cleared its first House committee.
“This sets a dangerous precedent, my colleagues, where our government can reprimand individuals or corporations over a matter of opinion,” added Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Hinson. “This violates our Constitution.”
Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani tweeted that the bill is “authoritarian trash.”
UCF’s Jewett doesn’t share the lawmaker’s characterization, but acknowledges “it’s definitely hardball politics.”
NYU’s Ben-Ghiat sees something more troubling than mere hardball politics.
“Going after Disney is not logically economically, it’s not good for Florida,” said Ben-Ghiat. “But someone like DeSantis whose only interested in power and fear doesn’t care, and it’s another example of how authoritarian minded leaders are not very good leaders.”
Even some conservatives are uncomfortable with the governor’s approach.
Charles CW Cooke, a writer for the conservative National Review publication who has largely cheered DeSantis’ leadership, penned an article questioning the Disney bill.
“DeSantis and the legislature pushed through a sensitive education bill, and then stared down Disney’s ridiculous, hysterical criticisms,” Cooke wrote on Twitter, referring to HB 1557. “They fought. They won. There is no need for them to salt the earth , take revenge, or make Florida’s policies worse.”
Jeff Charles, a podcast host and contributor to the conservative RedState publication, wrote on Twitter that punishing Disney “might FEEL good. But we shouldn’t be supporting policy based on feels.”
“It won’t feel good when Dems do the same when they have power,” he added.
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at [email protected]tribune.com
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism