On Thursday, the Florida legislature passed a bill cancelling Walt Disney World’s special tax status in that state. The bill, which will now almost certainly become law, eliminates the company’s Reedy Creek Improvement District, formed in 1967 as a consequence of the Disney corporation’s purchase of land to build its Magic Kingdom. The district and its quasi-ownership by Disney were created in part to alleviate anticipated tax burdens on local state governments with boundaries that encompass the 25,000-acre district, and it “essentially allows the megaresort, which employs roughly 80,000 people, to function as its own municipal government.”
Disney’s privileged status was revoked because Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek publicly criticized legislation passed last month by DeSantis and the Florida GOP that prohibits discussions about gender-related issues in the state’s public schools. Known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, that bias-affirming legislation is one of the more recent examples of Republican legislation designed to marginalize and demonize LGBTQ people, now an imperative for the Republicans in their effort to gain and cement political power.
The impact this retaliatory legislation will have on Disney's bottom line is unclear (its legality is highly questionable), but frankly it’s irrelevant to the larger point. What DeSantis and the Florida GOP have signaled with this action is their willingness to impose and inflict their warped sense of supposed Christian morality (or lack thereof) on the public at large through legislation that financially punishes private corporations that oppose or publicly disagree with their views. As Greg Sargent, writing for The Washington Post explains, this represents a chilling “expanded use of state power to fight the culture wars in a much broader and more pernicious sense.”
Again, Disney itself—whatever your feelings may be about that corporate behemoth—is wholly beside the point here. As explained by Jonathan Chait writing for New York Magazine, what the Republican Party now apparently sanctions, with little or no debate, is the same type of intimidation autocracies commonly use to stifle dissent and control public opinion in countries such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and Vladimir Putin’s Russia:
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.
Chait notes the lack of almost any conservative opposition to DeSantis’ action, a silence that confirms its tacit approval among the right. As Sargent notes, some of the current crop of Trump-vetted candidates, (J.D. Vance, for example, currently running for Senate in Ohio) have already voiced their support and approval of such tactics, which they characterize as the philosophy of a rejuvenated, more menacing “New Right” repurposed to promote a theocratically based “post-liberal moral order,” as Sargent describes it.
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Sargent’s piece in the Post, however, goes significantly further, explaining exactly how such tactics could—and likely would—play out on a national level assuming Republican control of Congress, or even worse, the executive branch that controls the function of our federal agencies.
Sargent quotes professor Donald P. Moynihan of Georgetown University on the implications of this type of intimidation. Moynihan suggests that in an executive branch controlled by DeSantis, for example, administrative agencies could be staffed (much the way they were under the Trump administration) with “right-thinking” officials, but specifically tasked with hunting down and persecuting corporations that refused to toe the administration’s ideological lines. In effect, the government would “harass or investigate companies perceived as ‘culturally disloyal.’” Changing the tax status of liberal-leaning foundations and targeting specific corporations with punitive measures (akin to what DeSantis is imposing on Disney) would also be possible through the administrative state.
And if for some reason that type of state-controlled pressure didn’t have its desired “chilling effect” on the way such foundations approached certain issues, the added legislative threat from a GOP Congress working in tandem with such agencies certainly would. Sargent poses the question:
What if such a president were backed in this project by congressional leadership? Josh Chafetz, a Georgetown law professor who studies Congress, says you could see legislation targeted at offending companies, and even if it didn’t survive the courts, it could still function in a punitive way.
Those companies would sink large sums of money into litigating against such measures, even as Congress relied on taxpayer-funded lawyers on their side, Chafetz told me, meaning “the onus of the expense would fall on the companies, which would have a chilling effect.”
All of this, of course, is in the service of maximizing political power through control of the population, be it publicly through their media propaganda outlets or now privately through coercion aimed at businesses and corporations that might threaten the conservative dogma that cements their control. And although conservatives love to pay fealty to the supposedly libertarian principles of “free enterprise,” those sentiments, as we now see in Florida, will readily come to a screeching halt when private businesses act as an impediment to the right’s theocratic cultural dogma.
With their thoroughly corrupt majority on the Supreme Court, their gerrymandered legislative majorities seemingly pending to take control of the Congress, and now their increasing willingness to punish private corporations that decline to submit to their ideological malignancy, Republicans have shown every indication not only that they prefer to live in a country like Hungary or Russia, but that they intend to do whatever is necessary to make that happen as soon as possible. The rest of us—and the incredible diversity of race, religion, and gender that this country actually represents—are simply obstacles to their vision, and thus undeserving of any thought or consideration.
Our task is to prove them wrong.