Won’t someone shed a tear for the corruptors of the youth? That is the cry emanating from National Review now that Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans have turned Disney’s world upside down. The debate playing out over politics in the Sunshine State is part of the growing divide between a conservatism that has conserved little more than sinecures and a new, far more combative species of the right.
DeSantis mobilized the Republican-led state legislature to strip Walt Disney World of its “independent special district” status, which provides significant tax breaks and autonomy for more than three dozen square miles of Disney land, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The move followed Disney’s pledge to end contributions to political candidates in Florida because DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education bill into law, which prohibits teaching sexual orientation and gender identity topics to third graders and younger children.
Disney has emerged as the loudest corporate critic of the measure, which, unsurprisingly, is quite popular. “When Americans are presented with the actual language of the new Florida law, it wins support by more than a two-to-one margin,” a poll by Public Opinion Strategies found. Overall, 61 percent of Americans approve of it.
Nevertheless, National Review’s writers and editors have gone on a tear against the governor. Charles C. W. Cooke, a senior writer at that magazine of pretentious conservative opinion, complains Republicans go a bridge too far by assaulting Disney’s Reedy Creek fiefdom. “Governor DeSantis has already fought Disney, and he has already won,” according to Cooke. “There is no need for the Republican Party of Florida to salt the earth here,” he adds.
Dan McLaughlin, another senior writer at National Review, nodded in agreement. “One of the reasons the cultural Left is in such a bad position with the American people right now is that it never knew when to take the W & stop,” he tweeted.
McLaughlin’s diagnosis that the cultural left is in a bad position with the American people is incorrect. The political backlash incurred by the left in the form of electoral defeat has not fundamentally altered the country’s trajectory, especially given the feeble alternative presented by the GOP and mainstream conservative movement. By the time the whiplash comes, both have already embraced the new center, which always trends leftward. For illustrative examples, read National Review’s articles from recent times in defense of transgenderism.
“Power worship is bad,” tweeted Isaac Schorr, National Review’s media and enterprise reporter. “I’m not strongly in favor, or strongly against the Florida GOP’s move on Reedy Creek, but power worship is bad.”
This view of power is plainly naïve—power is an inevitability. Nor is there anything principled about allowing one’s country to be plowed under by the crazies or about standing idly by while a media conglomerate like Disney attempts to cow a state legislature.
But who are these conservatives anyway to stand athwart the populist conservative movement, yelling “Stop!” at people who want to leave them behind? DeSantis is both popular and effective because he appears increasingly willing to abandon the impotent brand of conservatism National Review represents. Cooke, for example, complains that the special setup Republicans shredded with Disney is “deeply rooted in Florida’s soil, as a result of agreements the Florida legislature made with it in good faith.” The framing of Disney as a victim of the bullies in government is an inversion of reality.
It was Disney that struck first when it waged a smear campaign against a good and popular bill along with its supporters, and it was Disney that escalated the conflict when it vowed to repeal the education law, then finally flexed its financial muscle against lawmakers. But in his pedantic article, which seems simply to repeat what liberal outlets have said, Cooke oddly omits the company’s threat to halt donations.
Disney donated nearly $1 million to the Florida Republican during the 2020 election cycle, and another half-million to Republican Senate campaigns. Withholding those dollars shows that the fight did not end with the passage of DeSantis’ bill. Disney is still attempting to pressure lawmakers into accord with its leftist worldview. Moreover, it was Disney that chose to incinerate the relationship that “the Florida legislature made with it in good faith”—first by smear, then by the dollar. The governor, to his credit, merely chose to fight. He chose not only to defend the interests of his constituents but to attack their enemies, which, as it turns out, is a winning strategy.
To the agony of his audience, CNN Senior Data Reporter Harry Enten admitted that DeSantis’s embrace of the culture war is fueling his popularity in the polls. “His approval rating is going up, his chances of reelection are going up, it’s working for him,” Enten said. DeSantis’s lead over Charlie Crist, the frontrunner among the governor’s Democratic challengers, has grown dramatically as a result.
In short, it appears that Republicans might win an election based on something other than conservative voters having no good alternatives. They might continue legislating in response to their constituents’ wishes. They might even continue passing laws that protect children from the left’s latest bizarre and dangerous ideologies.
What’s certain, however, is that “woke” corporations like Disney won’t quit pushing these ideologies after only a single setback.
“I don’t think this is going to stop companies that have a strong reputation and value system,” Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, told The New York Times. “It’s a real test of what is the Disney value system and what they are willing to stand up for.”
Indeed, in a leaked video obtained by journalist Christopher Rufo, a Disney executive producer named Latoya Raveneau admitted she has been pushing a “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” by injecting LGBTQ storylines into children’s content, even as DeSantis signed the educational bill into law.
Little things like legislation won’t stop Disney from “grooming” your children—a term National Review’s David Harsanyi has also taken umbrage with. In fact, the term is true enough to describe efforts to sexualize children, and it is ironic that the magazine’s writers more readily denounce conservatives as bigots than leftists as groomers for pushing sexual ideology on kids.
More to the point, if what we’re seeing is Disney’s struggle to defend its value system, it is also a test of what value system we are willing to fight for—and some Florida Republicans, indeed, look ready to rumble in the long haul.
“The special tax district repeal is not the only thing Florida plans to do—it’s actually just the first step,” Republican Rep. Anthony Sabatini told me. He said that repealing the special tax district will be effective by showing that legislatures are willing to take action to hold hostile corporations accountable. The changes don’t go into effect until next year, so the legislature could even vote to reconstitute the special district if Disney plays nice.
Meanwhile, several other laws are being considered. Sabatini said Florida could pass a “combined reporting” tax law that would result in making Disney pay $600 million more—money that he said could be used to give tax cuts to middle and working-class Floridians instead of woke corporations like Disney.
The principle that will inform Middle America’s actions in the future won’t be civility but rather rewarding friends and punishing enemies. At least some Florida Republicans appear to have a plan for the fight ahead.
A newly assertive and populist conservative movement willing to fight the left and the corporate world will likely push establishment conservatives at National Review even further into cognitive dissonance.
In 2016, the magazine published what it called a conservative defense of transgender rights, asking, “Is it a good idea to empower the government to start lifting up people’s skirts?” Another of the magazine’s writers wrote in 2018 that transgenderism “seems to be the issue on which many on the right prefer to let loose their inner reactionary, which then further rationalizes petty tyranny on the left.” That article called for conservatives to compromise on transgenderism to preserve a peaceful social order—which is another way of asking them to play dead.
National Review has tried to have it both ways. It has simultaneously criticized transgenderism concerning policy and its relationship with children while refusing to reject its fundamental assumptions about sex and gender, as reflected in the glowing coverage it provides Caitlyn “Bruce” Jenner, who it has approvingly characterized as a “curious and colorful force to be reckoned with” among Republicans.
Though National Review may claim that it merely gives voice to all sides, standing tall on the dung pile of the middle ground, there is nothing principled about compromising on issues like transgenderism and attacking those who actually try to halt the culture’s slide to the left. The publication that William F. Buckley said he founded to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop,” now just shouts “Stop Resisting” at conservatives.
National Review and the movement it represents is unwilling to abandon the liberal gestalt of our time. DeSantis’ populism, intentionally or not, represents a break with liberalism because it leaves behind the illusion of institutional neutrality, which has only ever helped the left. Any attempt to preserve the status quo of this false neutrality, as conventional conservatives are wont to do, preserves an order that is fundamentally harmful to social conservatism—which is the only real kind of conservatism and the basis of all derivatives.
Whether National Review and its allies in the conservative establishment like it or not, this is a culture war, and turning the other cheek, though admirable when dealing with your friends, is a good way to get your jaw broken by your enemies.
Image: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, at a July 2021 Turning Point USA convention in Tampa
(Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0)