Ron DeSantis' Disney obsession: Why he can't let it go

Republican hate is no act — GOP leaders are true believers

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 19, 2023 6:41AM (EDT)

Ron DeSantis |  Disney 'Partners' statue at Magic Kingdom, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ron DeSantis | Disney 'Partners' statue at Magic Kingdom, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis, the arch-conservative Republican governor of Florida, graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School. Due to these elite credentials, he has long enjoyed the presumption of phoniness in the mainstream media. The far-right authoritarian politics DeSantis touts are treated almost universally in the press as evidence he's trying to win over the MAGA base rather than a direct reflection of his own fascistic worldview.

"Everything he does is about what can further his own career ambitions," one Florida activist, quoted by the Associated Press, said of DeSantis' efforts to ban all acknowledgment of LGBTQ people in public schools.

The New York Times argued the "don't say gay" law is a way for DeSantis to be "more of a warrior figure to his political base."

People like DeSantis continue to benefit from the rarely-questioned assumption that no one who went to Harvard or Yale can really be a serious authoritarian.

In writing about DeSantis's embrace of draconian censorship laws, Greg Sargent of the Washington Post writes, "DeSantis probably calculates that this would serve his short-term political interests," because it "will bolster him among GOP primary voters."

There's probably some truth to the idea that DeSantis hopes hardcore culture war antics will help distinguish him from Trump, whose interest in hating LGBTQ people has always seemed perfunctory and who was more focused on silencing his critics than banning books with sex in them. But there's substantial evidence that DeSantis is motivated just as much, and likely more, by his own longings to be a petty dictator guided by an entirely sincere ideology of hate.

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Vox legal reporter Ian Millhiser tweeted a story about meeting Desantis a few years ago in the green room at CNN. "After his segment, he spent at least 30 minutes in the makeup room, ranting to no one in particular about a conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton and Russia," Millhiser wrote, affirming that DeSantis is an authentic right-wing nut, even when the cameras are turned off. 

Other indicators have popped up, as well. There's the time DeSantis had a meltdown at a bunch of high school students who chose to wear masks. It not only cut against his false claims to support "personal choice," but it was so vicious that even the biggest pandemic-denying Karen was likely grossed out by his behavior. Then there was his recent signing of a near-absolute ban on abortion in Florida. DeSantis is aware that abortion bans are bad politics, which is why he signed the bill in the middle of the night in a failed attempt to sneak this one past the voters. All of this suggests that DeSantis knows some of his views aren't helpful, perhaps even in a GOP primary. He just is a true believer who wants to impose his bigoted beliefs on the public. 

The latest evidence that the MAGA behavior is not an act: DeSantis' bizarre and obsessive war with Disney.

DeSantis won't listen to that classic Disney song and just let it go.

It all started last year when the company released a milquetoast statement lightly condemning the "don't say gay" bill as a threat to the safety of Disney employees and their families. DeSantis overreacted dramatically, by threatening to violate both state law and First Amendment protections by revoking Disney's municipal control over the Disney World area. He got pretty far in this plan until he discovered that Disney — being equipped with fancy corporate lawyers — had figured out a workaround that denied his newly appointed board of right-wing ideologues most of the power over the company. DeSantis won't listen to that classic Disney song and just let it go, however. He's now threatening to build a competing amusement park or even a prison next to Disney World, all as a petty act of revenge.

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A politician whose main goal is gaining political advantage in a presidential primary would not be going down this rabbit hole. Even the hardest core MAGA types will struggle to care about a battle over trash pickup and water bills in the Disney World area. Frankly, it's hard for most to remember why DeSantis is so mad at Disney to begin with. But DeSantis is motivated by a very personal obsession, and he's using his electoral office to prosecute a grudge match. 

DeSantis did try to make this story relevant to the MAGA base by pretending that he could leverage what is a real estate battle into censorship powers over Disney's content, but it was a stretch. Yes, there is a small but vocal group of right-wing whiners who are angry all the time over a Black Little Mermaid or the fact that "Frozen" had two female leads. But even in Republican circles, most people simply don't care enough about "woke" Disney to work themselves into a lather over it. As Sarah Jones of New York wrote last week, right-wing activists have spent decades trying to paint Disney as a threat to the red state way of life, and it's never made a dent in Disney profits. Other conservative "boycotts" end up the same. The ravings about "woke" corporations on social media never seem to translate to any serious shift in red state consumption habits. Plus, DeSantis never really explained how battling with Disney over municipal control would make the Black Little Mermaid white again. So even those who care about that won't be able to connect DeSantis' fixation on Disney to their own culture war goals. Even at Breitbart, where culture war obsessions are the order of the day, the latest story on this got a paltry 3 comments. Only one supported DeSantis' actions. It's worth remembering that Disney is the largest employer in the Sunshine State. Only the most MAGA-poisoned Republican voters think it's smart to run lucrative companies out of your tax base. 

Donald Trump definitely seems to think all of this just hurts DeSantis, by making DeSantis look weak and trifling. 

DeSantis is far from the only example from just this month alone that Republican leaders aren't faking it, but are in fact the wild-eyed right-wing radicals they present themselves to be.

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ignored not just all law and science in an effort to ban the abortion pill, but overwhelming evidence that his actions would backfire politically. His choices build on the Republican-controlled Supreme Court's original decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, despite polls showing it would harm their party. In Tennessee, Republicans made a spectacle of their own racism by expelling two Black lawmakers from the state legislature for speaking out against gun violence. In Oklahoma, recently released secret recordings show that conservative officials sound like an anonymous forum of white supremacists when they don't think anyone is listening. 

The simplest explanation for why Republican politicians behave like a bunch of bigots is that they are, in fact, a bunch of bigots. And yet, this media myth persists that it's all just an act to win over the "base" of uneducated yokels. The belief that "savvy" politicians are manipulating the unwashed masses goes at least back to the 2005 bestseller "What's the Matter with Kansas." In that book, author Thomas Frank posited that opposition to abortion rights was just a pose that Republicans adopted to win votes. He insisted they never intended to actually outlaw the procedure. 

Frank was so wrong that it would be hilarious, except for all the millions of women who are now under threat because of the complacency he encouraged. But the elitist attitude that fueled his book persists in the media. People like DeSantis continue to benefit from the rarely-questioned assumption that no one who went to Harvard or Yale can really be a serious authoritarian. The idea that it's just an act is too hard to shake, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that people like DeSantis are exactly the monsters they play on TV. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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