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Mice and mice: Ron DeSantis thinks competing with Disney is a risky business

Tim Wildmon was there as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went to war with Disney over what he called an “awake” of corporate sensitivities and criticism of state policy Cheers.

Mr. Wildmond, president of the American Family Association, a right-wing religious group, has more experience than most: In 1995, his organization, known for its opposition to LGBTQ rights, rallied a broad coalition of evangelicals to put families together at Disney. Many groups boycotted Disney after benefits were extended to gay employees.

But since then, Mr. Wildmon has learned to lower his expectations. After an early wave of international media attention, the boycott receded from the headlines, and when Mr. Wildmon officially stopped the boycott a decade later, it had little noticeable impact on Disney’s policies or revenues.

“It’s very difficult to sustain beyond three or four years,” he said. “People move on. They lose interest. Things change.”

Some things stay the same. Nearly 20 years later, Mr. DeSantis is trying to turn Americans against The Walt Disney Company, one of the most powerful superpowers in American pop culture and business. He also joins another corporate culture giant, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which outraged the right this month over a Bud Light marketing campaign promoting a transgender influencer.

“I’d rather be governed by us the people than wake up the corporations, so I think a full disapproval is warranted,” the governor said in a recent interview with right-wing media personality Benny Johnson.

As he prepares to run for president, Mr. DeSantis’ move is testing whether changes in Republican politics and boardrooms have rewritten the rules of the anti-corporate movement. American businesses are increasingly participating in social debates, responding to the needs of consumers and employees. Meanwhile, within the Republican Party, a combination of the party’s Trump-era populist rhetorical turn and hard-line stance on gender politics has made corporate America an attractive battleground for culture warriors.

But taking on Mickey Mouse is still a tricky business. As Mr. Wildmon and others can attest, brands with Disney’s size and cultural footprint have emerged from past boycotts unscathed. Companies that a generation ago might have been wary of such struggles are now more likely to see them as inevitable, and in some cases even a source of market advantage.

In Florida, Disney has proven to be Mr. DeSantis’ devious political foil. Last year, Mr. DeSantis sought to strip Disney of the unusual autonomous arrangement that Disney had enjoyed for decades in the state after the company criticized a Republican bill in the state legislature that restricted teaching about gender and sexuality in schools. But when Disney representatives found a way around it, his administration seemed defeated.

The governor escalated the dispute this month by threatening to lay out a list of possible penalties. Disney filed the lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday, alleging “a targeted campaign of government retaliation” after its board voted to nullify an agreement that gave the company control over the expansion of its resort complexes.

Mr. DeSantis’ press secretary, Bryan Griffin, described the company’s move as an “attempt to subvert the will of the people of Florida.” Disney, one of the state’s largest employers, has repeatedly said it was acting in compliance with state law. Its chief executive, Robert A. Iger, criticized Mr. DeSantis’ actions as “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.”

Polls suggest Mr. DeSantis’ political success in the debate may depend on whether he is seen as a populist controlling big business or as a culture crusader. A Harvard-Harris poll this month found that a majority of registered voters across the country — and a vast majority of Republicans — sided with DeSantis in a showdown. The investigation described Mr. DeSantis as trying to “limit Disney’s autonomy” and remove “special tax status”.

But a separate Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found that less than half of Republicans had a more favorable view of the governor because of his fight with Disney. Majorities of Democrats and Republicans say they are unlikely to support a candidate who supports laws aimed at punishing companies for their stance on cultural issues.

Potential rivals to DeSantis in the 2024 presidential primary see the event as a weakness, with polls showing DeSantis slipping. On his Truth Social platform, Donald J. Trump mocked Mr. DeSantis for being “totally ruined by Disney.”

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie questioned whether Mr. DeSantis’ hard-line use of state power against corporations had undermined his conservative claims.

“If you express dissent in this country, the government is going to punish you now, where are we going now?” Mr Christie said at an event last week.

In the campaign against Anheuser-Busch, a more traditional boycott without the political complexities of government intervention, the backlash had a more pronounced impact. In recent days, amid reports of slumping sales, the company announced the furlough of the marketing executive in charge of a promotional partnership with influencer Dylan Mulvaney.

However, other companies that have drawn the ire of left and right consumers have generally found the rage to be short-lived. Nike was vilified by President Trump and others for a 2018 campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was accused of kneeling during the national anthem to protest police shootings Unarmed black people face the wrath of the right. Shares of Nike fell 3% after the release of its first Kaepernick ad, but rallied to an all-time high within weeks.

Nike’s campaign is a signature moment in a shift in corporate politics in the U.S., which has long shared causes with Republicans on issues such as taxes and regulation but has increasingly clashed with Republicans on social issues.

This is partly because businesses have become more socially liberal in their policies, reflecting broader trends in public opinion on many issues. When the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBTQ rights group, published its first corporate equality index in 2002, only 13 companies scored top marks for LGBTQ friendliness. In 2022, 842 companies have done so.

“I think it’s important to their employees, their clients, their investors,” said Eric Bloem, the group’s senior director of programs and corporate advocacy. “It’s all interconnected.”

In the 2010s, when newly Republican-controlled state legislatures began aggressively pursuing legislation targeting LGBTQ rights, the new sociopolitics of corporations came into direct conflict with, and often overwhelmed, their old allegiances to the Chamber of Commerce. Companies including PayPal, Deutsche Bank, Disney and Walmart have canceled expansion plans, threatened boycotts and lobbied political leaders in several states against the new law.

The shift in the business world accelerated after the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020, with companies as diverse as Citigroup and McDonald’s expressing solidarity with a nascent wave of racial justice protests.

Brands that outreach to right-leaning Americans are the exception rather than the rule, and they’re mostly smaller businesses. But for Republican politicians like Mr. DeSantis, dissatisfaction among party voters over the new corporate value signal is proving an opportunity. Last year, communications firm Edelman found in its annual Trust Barometer survey that a majority of Republican respondents — and more Republicans than Democrats — said for the first time that they distrust businesses.

“The Republican Party is committed to promoting the virtues of capitalism,” said Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and Republican presidential candidate who has largely criticized corporate America’s social liberalism during his campaign.

Just a few years ago, campaigning against big business was not the right fit for the party, he said. Now, he said, “we can better understand what happened.”

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