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How will Mr. DeSantis’s wild Disney ride end?

Only in our hair-trigger “war on woke” political culture can Cinderella’s castle become a battlefield shrine. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), not exactly Churchillian in demeanor, promises never to surrender to an enemy whose only real crime against humanity is the mind-deadening theme song to “It’s a Small World.” 

To coin Churchill’s oratory, whatever the cost may be, DeSantis will fight the enemy in the field, the streets, the hills and the pure white sands of the Disney Beach Club Resort. 

Like many wars, the first shot seemed inconsequential. Disney criticized a Republican bill in the Florida Legislature limiting schools’ instruction on sexuality and gender.

From there, things escalated, like a Disney “The Avengers” movie. DeSantis reacted to the criticism by attempting to strip the theme park of its unique form of self-governance in Florida. (I have mixed feelings about the arrangement.) Then, Disney’s lawyers outflanked him. Next, the governor threatened to construct near Disney World, saying “Maybe…a state park, maybe try to do more amusement parks — someone even said, like, maybe you need another state prison.” (Maybe combine it all in one attraction: “DeSantis’s Dizzying Penal Colony Safari.”) 

Last week, Disney sued in federal court, claiming “a targeted campaign of government retaliation”; and the state Senate passed SB 1604 to nullify Disney’s development agreement. 

Yorktown. Normandy. Verdun. Now, Fantasyland. Legislative armies will bravely stand their ground in Tallahassee. The heavy artillery of lawyers has been summoned; the sharp spitfire of social media ignited.

DeSantis once told my constituents, many of whom had lost everything in Superstorm Sandy, that they weren’t entitled to federal disaster aid. Welcome to his latest fight: Cruel DeSantis versus Cruella de Vil.

The political benefits appear mixed, at least for now. The New York Times reported on a Harvard-Harris poll in which a majority of registered voters side with DeSantis.

But another poll, by Reuters/Ipsos, found less than half of Republicans had a more favorable view of the governor because of his fight with Disney. And majorities of Democrats and Republicans said they were less likely to support a candidate who supported laws intended to punish companies for their positions on cultural issues.

Meanwhile, former President Trump has opened his own front. On his Truth Social platform, he mocked DeSantis for being “absolutely destroyed by Disney.” Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said at an event last week “Where are we headed…now that, if you express disagreement in this country, the government is now going to punish you?”

Putting aside the tactical political theater, two big questions lurk in this battle. 

The first is whether DeSantis’s war on Disney expresses a permanent genetic mutation of traditional Republican ideology. It looks like the latest clash is what my friend former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) has described as a veering of the GOP “from country clubs to country.”

In this case, the conflict pits traditional chambers of commerce (capitalism with minimal government intervention) against the frothing political intensity of a Republican base (conservative culture enforced by maximum government). It’s also another byproduct of the erosion of faith in institutions. A recent poll found that Republicans are now less trusting of business than are Democrats.

In this alternative political reality, some Republicans are fine with free markets, so long as they’re not too free. A company’s response to consumer demand must be monitored, regulated, legislated by the politically correct in state capitals. Government must protect us from the insensitivities of free enterprise. Profits can’t offend piety.

The second question is: Who will win this battle? 

The short history of similar fights (not exactly Josephus, Sun Tzu or Clausewitz) instructs that they become wars of attrition, and ideology tends to flag at the end. In the 1990s, the conservative American Family Association (AFA) launched a boycott of Disney for extending benefits to gay employees. It became a long war, and AFA’s president admitted: “It was very difficult to sustain for more than three or four years. People move on. They lose interest. Things change.”

More recent cultural attacks against Nike, Chick-fil-A and others have had little to no longstanding impact on the bottom line. Consumers may be irritated by Disney, but long held principle ultimately succumbs to the lure of a Disney World FastPass+. 

I hope so. When it comes to protecting America in a challenging, volatile world, I’m more concerned with Vladimir Putin’s reckless invasions than Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. 

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael

Tags desantis disney feud DeSantis v. Disney Disney disney world Florida Ron DeSantis Ron DeSantis Steve Israel Tom Davis Walt Disney Company

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