Disney’s hero to DeSantis’ villain

by Beth Kowitt

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war against Walt Disney Co. reached parody level on Monday when he floated his latest threat: building a prison next to its theme park complex in the state. 

While DeSantis is increasingly coming across as petty and vindictive in the debacle — and some might even say slightly unhinged — in a strange twist the conflict is giving Disney a chance to demonstrate its mettle and rewrite the narrative on its corporate values and ethics. 

For those who have not been following the drama worthy of its own full-length Disney treatment, here’s a recap: DeSantis and the media giant’s battle began last year when the company spoke out rather mildly against a Florida bill designed to ban elementary school classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity — dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. 

DeSantis retaliated by disbanding Disney’s special districting, which allowed the company to self-govern Disney World. But before the new governing structure went into effect, Disney pushed through changes limiting the power of DeSantis’s incoming handpicked board. DeSantis responded by raising the ante, announcing on Monday, alongside his prison suggestion, new legislation that would reverse Disney’s power play. “Disney’s corporate kingdom is over,” he tweeted. 

If this all sounds a bit convoluted, the most important fact to understand is DeSantis’s fairly obvious motivation as he prepares to run for president. He has made his attacks on Disney the centerpiece of what’s likely to be his national platform’s focus on battling “woke” corporations and capitalism. He dedicates a whole chapter to his crusade against Disney in his new book and has made the episode a central talking point on his promotion tour. 

Rather than back down and slink away quietly from all the posturing, Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger has said that DeSantis’s attempts to punish the company are “not just anti-business, but anti-Florida” and that he will continue to weigh in on issues “relevant to our business and the people that work for us.” The company is hosting a big LGBTQ+ workplace summit at Disney World in Orlando in September. And just to underline its position — and in some next-level trolling — the company announced on Twitter amid all the unfolding drama a “Pride Nite” event at California’s Disneyland next month. 

Disney may very well be standing up for its values. But if you want to take a more cynical view, this is also a smart strategy on the company’s part as it realigns itself with progressive causes because it has clearly lost any chance of making nice with the DeSantis crowd. Today the company is being cheered by the left for standing up to DeSantis’s bullying, but it was only last year that it was berated for its response to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The CEO at the time, Bob Chapek, was slow to speak out against the bill, angering employees who walked out over his silence and leading #boycottDisney to trend on social media. Chapek’s botched reaction to the episode most likely contributed to the board’s decision to oust him and bring back Iger. 

Tweets of #boycottDisney are now more likely to come from DeSantis’s circle than the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. If the left hasn’t forgotten Disney’s transgressions under Chapek, it may have at least forgiven them in part. Chapek tried to walk the line of appeasing everyone, which always ends up angering all parties. Since then, Disney under Iger seems to have figured out that if you’re going to wade into politics — by choice or by force — you better be prepared for the backlash and to stand your ground on whatever position you take. Otherwise, expect a good skewering from both sides. 

Another instructive example is playing out with Anheuser-Busch. In March, the beer company partnered with influencer Dylan Mulvaney, who has documented her gender transition on TikTok, by putting her face on a can of Bud Light. Predictably, this did not go over well with some of the brand’s base, many of whom threatened a boycott. The company’s response? After trying to capitalize on Mulvaney and trans rights, it cowardly abandoned both. Now it’s on the receiving end of some well-deserved vitriol from the left, too. 

As my colleague Ben Schott points out in his excellent column on Anheuser-Busch, the company had “neither the wisdom to plan for the backlash nor the bravery to stand by its partner” — a lesson Disney seems to have learned after last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill fiasco. But most important, Ben points out that while the culture war for some is “just a cynical rallying cry or comic rim-shot, it does have actual casualties.”  

It’s easy to forget that while companies and politicians are busy playing politics, its people’s lives and rights that become the chess pieces. Sticking up for its values despite the heat is the least a corporation can do. 

Beth Kowitt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering corporate America. She was previously a senior writer and editor at Fortune Magazine.