When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis struck back at Disney for declining to support his culture war demagoguery, some observers were quick to see this as evidence of a supposed rift between the Republican Party and big business.
The Washington Post ran a front-page story declaring that “growing numbers of state and federal Republican leaders today seem eager to clash with the country’s biggest corporations.” The article portrayed the Disney dispute and a few other examples, such as criticism of Delta Air Lines for opposing restrictive voting law changes in Georgia, as “cracks in the once-sturdy relationship between companies and a business-friendly GOP.”
A similar article in the New York Times was headlined “Rebuke of Disney is Sign of a Shift by Republicans Away from Big Business.”
Reading these pieces gave me a strong feeling of déjà vu. I was reminded of the commentaries that were published about Donald Trump during his first presidential race and after his election in 2016. Much was made of his supposed attacks on big banks, military contractors and pharmaceutical companies. This continued when Trump went after Amazon.com for its supposed sweetheart deal with the postal service.
It eventually became clear that all of purported conflict amounted to nothing of substance. Trump never followed through on any actions that would negatively impact large corporations. In fact, he pursued a thoroughly pro-business agenda of lavish corporate tax cuts and a relentless attack on regulation. The latter made life easier for payday lenders, brazen polluters and employers engaged in wage theft. While some major corporations expressed misgivings about Trump’s style or his rhetoric on other issues, they were thrilled to watch him fulfill their most ardent policy desires.
Trump’s evil genius was his ability to give his working-class supporters the impression he was promoting their interests while actually catering to the corporate elite.
I have no doubt that DeSantis and other Republicans now attacking big business are engaged in the same kind of political theater. The only difference is that, while Trump pretended to be an economic populist, today’s rising GOP stars find it more advantageous to spar with corporations over social issues. It is true that DeSantis got Disney’s special taxing district rescinded, but he will probably get it reinstated once he no longer needs the company as a political foil.
The GOP spats with corporations are made easier by the fact that much of big business these days is engaged in its own posturing. Under the rubric of corporate social responsibility or ESG, many large companies are speaking out on social and environmental issues, often depicting themselves as the vanguard of change. They may do this on their own initiative, or, as in the case of Disney, are pressured by employees.
Trump-style Republicans and politically correct corporations are both engaged in a kind of kabuki dance. DeSantis et al. are pretending to be moral crusaders when they simply pursuing their political ambitions. Large companies are pretending to be moral crusaders of another sort when they are simply burnishing their commercial image.
Reporters looking for serious corporate critics are not going to find them anywhere in the Republican Party—nor among most Democrats. The mark of a serious challenger to big business is someone willing to support efforts to curb corporate power. That means strengthening worker organizing rights, consumer protection laws, environmental oversight, antitrust laws and the like—not concocting phony disputes with companies to advance a misguided culture war agenda.