Apr 18, 2023 - Politics & Policy

DeSantis' war on Disney splinters GOP

Photo illustration of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis surrounded by Disney mouse shapes.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Chandan Khanna/AFP and Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Former President Trump today accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of flying too close to the sun with his war on Disney, setting up a key test of whether the GOP base is more beholden to personality or policy.

Why it matters: DeSantis' meteoric rise has been fueled in large part by his championing of the conservative culture war. By criticizing DeSantis' feud with Disney as a "political stunt," Trump appears to be opposing an "anti-woke" crusade that many MAGA activists have thus far supported.

Driving the news: DeSantis unveiled a proposal yesterday to override Disney's effort to circumvent state oversight of Walt Disney World — suggesting, with a smile, that Florida could build a new state prison next to the park.

  • The battle with one of Florida's largest employers began when Disney publicly denounced the GOP's Parental Rights in Education Bill, dubbed by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
  • DeSantis responded with legislation in April 2022 that revoked the special status of Reedy Creek, a municipal district operated by Disney. In late February, he signed a bill transferring control of the district to the state.
  • Board members later discovered that the Disney-allied board approved agreements that gave the company authority over most of the future construction in the district — triggering DeSantis' latest broadsides.

What they're saying: "DeSanctus is being absolutely destroyed by Disney," Trump wrote on Truth Social, predicting that the corporation's next move would be to freeze or withdraw investment in Florida.

  • "In the meantime, this is all so unnecessary, a political STUNT!" Trump added.

Zoom in: Disney is a political and economic force in central Florida: A 2019 study found Orlando's tourism industry generated $75.2 billion in annual economic impact, 463,000 jobs and $5.8 billion in additional state tax revenue.

  • Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is considering running for president as an anti-Trump candidate, blasted DeSantis for defying conservative principles by interfering in "the business of business."
  • "You have to admit when you screwed up and got taken. It happens," Christie told Semafor this morning.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence also criticized DeSantis for taking his Disney feud too far in February, even as he voiced approval for the original education bill.

Between the lines: Disney is not the only issue on which Trump's political instincts may be more in line with the public.

  • Trump has relentlessly hammered DeSantis for voting as a member of Congress to cut Social Security and Medicare to help balance the budget — a mainstream position in the pre-Trump GOP.
  • Trump is widely believed to be more liberal on abortion than most Republicans, but he has been conspicuously silent on DeSantis' recent signing of a six-week abortion ban.

What to watch: Donald Trump Jr. has faced some criticism from conservatives for calling for an end to the boycott of Bud Light, which was launched in response to its partnership with a transgender activist.

  • That response could provide a roadmap for how his father's Disney position will be received — though it would take a political earthquake to dislodge Trump's base.
  • A recent CBS News poll found that 76% of Republicans now say it's very or somewhat important to them that Republicans be loyal to Trump — up 11 points from January, before his indictment.
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