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DeSantis’s attack on Disney will likely fail — and that’s probably OK with him


Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has recently made headlines by attacking the Walt Disney Company after the company criticized Florida legislation that would severely restrict education in public schools on sexual orientation and gender identity. Central to these attacks has been the passage of a bill by the Florida legislature to revoke Disney World’s designation as a special tax district, which had given Disney effective control of the geographic area around Disney World.

Immediately in the days following Gov. DeSantis’ signing the bill into law, potential problems with it emerged. Some have argued that the bill’s passage will lead to significant tax increases on Florida citizens. Others have pointed out that the legislation is very likely to be overturned in court. You might think either of these outcomes would bother the Florida governor. You’d be wrong.

In particular, Gov. DeSantis would likely be quite content if the bill were deemed to be illegal; he has already reaped the benefit of its passage. That benefit was to signal to Republican primary voters that he will take on big businesses if they don’t toe the line regarding his cultural preferences (and those of the voters he hopes to win over). Whether those big businesses actually bear any costs is beside the point. The passage of the legislation had a symbolic purpose; it was a Republican form of virtue signaling.

Governor DeSantis learned this approach from the master — and his possible rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. As president, Donald Trump was a virtuoso at enacting symbolic measures that ended up having little impact but sounded great to his base of voters. The border wall is the classic example.

Trump’s alleged focus on deregulation — the policy area I study most closely — also exemplifies this behavior. Ask any voter and they likely believe that the 45th President removed a great deal of regulation. That is likely because Trump repeated that claim over and over again. But the evidence shows something quite different. The Trump administration both issued large numbers of regulations and had many of its deregulatory efforts stopped in court because they were deemed illegal.

But the former President never mentioned that. And for the most part, neither did his political opponents. It’s a lot like when a newspaper prints a correction about an error in a story: The story is what people read, and the correction notice is largely ignored. What President Trump realized is that people would remember his claims about deregulation and his initial actions to attempt to repeal regulations. They would not remember (or never hear about) the fact that those claims were incorrect or that the repeals never took effect.

This is the playbook that Gov. DeSantis is following. Take a bold action that will garner headlines. If doing so is in service of a cause valued by many Republican primary voters, all the better. Then don’t worry so much if the action ends up getting reversed or never goes into effect. 

The current iteration of the Republican Party has been described as “post-policy.” Changing public policy is secondary to getting credit for doing so. And it is even better if the claim you are making is an example of “owning the libs.” The battle for the 2024 Republican nomination is shaping up to be a battle between two politicians who embrace and have mastered this mindset.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.

Tags 2024 presidential race Culture Wars Disney World Don't Say Gay bill Donald Trump Florida Republicans government regulation public perception Republican Party Ron DeSantis Walt Disney Company

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