DeSantis' war on Disney is how autocrats —and some Republicans — handle critics

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at CPAC at the Hyatt Regency in  Orlando on Feb. 26, 2021. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Whatever people think of Florida’s new “Don’t say gay” law, a side debate should chill the spine of anyone who understands the dangers of abuse of government power in service to ideological fervor.

Disney has had the audacity to oppose the law — to which Gov. Ron DeSantis has responded by threatening to hinder the entertainment company’s operations in Florida. It’s but one example of GOP extremists’ rejection of their own limited-government ethos in the party’s slide toward authoritarian thinking.

The new law prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in ways that are not “age appropriate” for students. Critics say that standard is so vague that it will effectively scare educators away from any such discussion at all, even when it’s appropriate.

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The law itself is one debate. But DeSantis’ threats of official action against Disney for merely opposing him on a policy issue should strike any freedom-loving American as an outrageous and unacceptable infringement on free speech rights.

In essence, DeSantis has announced that in punishment for Disney’s disobedience, he will change state statutes to remove long-standing benefits for the company, including limited autonomy from state laws within the confines of its storied Orlando theme park.

DeSantis didn’t exactly put it that way, of course — instead, he claimed, implausibly, that he was shocked to recently discover (right after Disney opposed his legislation) that those decades-old benefits were in the law. But the message came across loud and clear: Nice little theme park ya got here. Shame if somethin’ was to happen to it.

DeSantis is nurturing a brand of Trumpism without the incompetence, but he has certainly kept the thuggishness. His attack on Disney is reminiscent of then-President Donald Trump denying a Pentagon contract to Amazon to punish owner Jeff Bezos for unflattering coverage from The Washington Post, which Bezos also owns. This is how autocrats act — and DeSantis has clearly absorbed the lesson.

Complicating matters is the fact that Disney, in addition to criticizing the law, has vowed to withhold future political contributions from state politicians, of which DeSantis himself was a significant beneficiary. So a governor is using his power to punish a company right after it announced it would stop giving him money. What could possibly look shady about that?

In Missouri recently, Republican lawmakers seriously discussed making it illegal to even provide information to Missourians about abortion services in other states. At the height of the pandemic, multiple red states threatened privately owned businesses with government sanctions if they followed the advice of medical experts regarding precautions. And now Florida’s governor is using his official powers to strong-arm Mickey Mouse for ideological obedience.

There are lots of words to describe the kind of governance this crowd seeks for America. “Conservative” isn’t among them.

— From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board.