Bonfires of Vengeance
Ron DeSantis’s attack on Disney isn’t “populism.”
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)
My good friend Matt K. Lewis describes Ron DeSantis’s retaliation against Disney as “the clearest sign yet that the Republican Party has reordered itself as a populist, working-class party—instead of a pro-business party.”
With all due respect to Lewis, I think this massively misses the point. I’ll explain later, but let’s step back for a moment.
“I tend to think that we should seize the institutions of the left,” he said. “And turn them against the left. We need like a de-Baathification program, a de-woke-ification program.”
“I think Trump is going to run again in 2024,” he said. “I think that what Trump should do, if I was giving him one piece of advice: Fire every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people.”
“And when the courts stop you,” he went on, “stand before the country, and say—” he quoted Andrew Jackson, giving a challenge to the entire constitutional order—“the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.” . . .
Let’s set aside the fact that the Jackson quote is apocryphal. There’s a lot more going on here than just “populism.” Dig deep enough, and I suppose you can come up with some benefits to the “working class,” but that seems secondary.
What Vance is fantasizing about is a campaign of postconstitutional retribution — a bonfire of vengeance.
And we can look for a lot more.
“You just know this as fact: that if Donald Trump wins reelection, his four years would be consumed with revenge,” says former RNC Chairman Michael Steele. “His four years would be consumed with validating his lie. His four years would be consumed with retribution against those who, in his view, wronged him, and [he] would then corrupt… the various institutions that would be required to execute his revenge….”
But what if those levers of reprisal were in hands more competent than Trump’s?
Which brings us back to Ron DeSantis.
Last week, DeSantis signed hastily passed legislation stripping Disney of its independent tax status. “In so doing,” writes Lewis, “DeSantis is actually fighting and winning a culture war that Trump only talked about.”
Others on the right are also feeling a tingle up their legs. Henry Olsen called it a “political masterstroke.”
One of the few conservative dissents came from National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke, who thought the whole thing was misguided. He noted that many on the right defended the anti-Disney legislation by arguing that “sticking it to Disney in this matter demonstrates that the Republican Party is willing to ‘fight’ and will thus represent a victory for conservatism.”
But, as Cooke pointed out, this is silly. DeSantis and the GOP had already won on the issue of gender education. They passed the bill. It is law. Polls show that it was a political winner for DeSantis. Wrote Cooke: “There is no need for the Republican Party of Florida to salt the earth here; it has prevailed in every particular.”
This is the crucial question: So why salt the earth? The answer: Because this is the politics of revenge and punishment.
There is actually no substantive public policy issue here. Until this month, no “free-market” Republican had raised objections to the company’s tax status, which is unusual, but far from unique. As Cooke noted, Florida has 1,844 special districts, “of which 1,288 are, like Walt Disney World, ‘independent.’” This includes The Villages, as well as Orlando International Airport, and the Daytona International Speedway.
In any case, the rationalizations are mere eyewash, because Florida Republicans made no secret of their motivation here: it was payback, and a mailed-fist threat to other businesses who might engage in wrongthink.
Until about five minutes ago, conservatives were not merely pro-free market, but were adamant in their belief that corporations had constitutionally protected free speech rights (see Citizens United). Conservatives were (rightly) outraged when illiberal progressives kicked Chick-fil-A out of airports because of the political activities of the restaurant’s owners. The cases of Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cake Shop were rallying points for the defense of conscience (and both businesses were vindicated in court).
But the New Right has executed an extraordinary pivot: It is now fully on board with state retaliation against private companies who engage in disfavored political speech.
Despite Cooke’s dissent, others at National Review seem fine with the latest Orbánist flex. NR editor Rich Lowry seems almost giddy at the prospect, writing in Politico: “Taking on big business when it veers to the left is a huge opportunity for Republicans.”
“Republicans have fantasized about exacting revenge on corporations that have taken up woke causes before,” he writes. And now, they get their wish fulfillment, even thought he admits it might be a bit tacky.
“Government retaliating against companies is a poor practice and a bad precedent,” he sniffs, “but such is the Republican disenchantment with big business that few are going to object.”
And certainly not Lowry, who stands athwart incipient authoritarianism and asks, “Why Not?”
Disney is reaping its just reward for inserting itself into the political debate about Florida’s parental rights bill, which Disney lost in spectacular fashion. Republican governors and lawmakers across the country should be taking notes.
This is how you deal with big corporations that try to throw around their weight and force woke policies on voters and families. You punish them, not just because they deserve it, but also, as Voltaire famously put it, pour encourager les autres.
Ben Shapiro, who has spent years posturing as a champion of Free Speech, is also done pretending.
The Facts-Don’t-Care-About-Your-Feelings-Guy has morphed into the Fuck- Around-And-Find-Out-Guy.
Warming to his role as ideological enforcer, Shapiro wants to make it clear that the threat extends to other companies who might be tempted to engage in political speech, or take stands on cultural issues.
So, if businesses do “fuck around,” what will happen to them? In the Brave New World that DeSantis-Shapiro, et al. envision, what sorts of bills of attainder might they expect?
Will Republican culture warriors abolish tax incremental financing districts if business leaders say the wrong things about LGBTQ rights? Will they strip companies of their copyrights or other intellectual property protections (as GOP members of Congress are actually threatening to do with Disney), or will they demand selective prosecutions of companies that they deem to be “woke”?
And what might a Trump 2.0 federal government be able to do to punish wrongthink, and reward anti-wokeness?
It’s probably not to early too start thinking about that now.
So let’s go back to my problem with Matt Lewis’s description of all of this as a reflection of “populist” or “working class” politics.
Regardless of how you feel about the merits of DeSantis’s attack, Lewis writes, “the fact that he is at the vanguard of this new paradigm shift suggests to me that he is very well aware of the trends I’ve just discussed. Depending on your political ideology, that makes him a lot more exciting—or dangerous—than Trump.”
You may not like Ron DeSantis, but he built a better mousetrap.
This, however, is far from clear.
As Sarah Rumpf lays out in great detail, the anti-Disney bill appears to be poorly thought out, and it is likely to be caught up in complex litigation for years. DeSantis’s reflexively vindictive “better mousetrap” turns out to be a clusterfuck of unintended consequences.
Nor is it clear what actual benefit accrues to any member of the working class by a measure that now seems likely to shift a massive property tax burden onto nearby counties.
So calling this “populist,” or seeing the move merely as “anti-business,” seems to be fundamentally missing the point. But this is understandable, because the American political vocabulary is having a hard time keeping up, as the right moves to older — and more alien — models of political thuggery.
[DeSantis] is establishing a new norm in Republican politics: Corporations that publicly question the party’s preferred policy, or withhold donations in protest, will be subject to discriminatory policy. If they enjoy favorable regulatory or tax treatment, they can continue to do so on the condition that they stay in the GOP’s political good graces.
This is one way rulers like Orban and Putin hold power. It is a method that, until quite recently, would have been considered unthinkable in the United States. That bright line has been obliterated. Trump and DeSantis have now made it almost unremarkable.
Right now, however, it is working. Much of the right-wing media has enthusiastically rallied around DeSantis as the tougher, more competent version of Trump. As Chait notes: “What DeSantis is building in Florida is his blueprint for the country.”
For American conservatives, if that means abandoning fusty principles like free markets, free speech, and limited government, then so be it. Revenge, apparently, will be so much sweeter.
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