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The Ratcatcher

In an exclusive interview with The American Conservative, Florida’s Ron DeSantis explains his war with Disney for the soul and sovereignty of America.

President Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Tampa
(Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that is all.”

For the past fourteen months, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and the Walt Disney Company have been at war. I traveled down to Tallahassee, about 250 miles northwest of the Walt Disney World Resort, Disney’s home base in the Sunshine State, to interview DeSantis about Florida’s campaign against Mickey and the Magic Kingdom.


It started last March over a piece of legislation that prohibited teaching students below third grade about divergent sexual and gender identities—and the instruction that inevitably comes with these themes. The fighting intensified as the governor and Florida’s elected representatives tried to find ways to rein in Disney’s power. The fight has been particularly intense for the past ninety days or so, as the governor and legislators sprang their rat trap.

If DeSantis and his allies have their way, the war will end with the dismantling of Disney’s numerous special privileges granted by the state, which the company has enjoyed for the last half-century, including the ability essentially to govern itself via the Reedy Creek Improvement District. DeSantis recently signed legislation doing precisely that. But first, Mickey wants his day in court. This is America, after all.

The episode has raised key questions about sovereignty, the proper relationship between corporations and the state, public and private power, and how conservatives should conceive of markets and our economic system. Like Lewis Carroll’s egg-man, Disney, which did not respond to requests for comment, has enunciated from its perch the only important political question: Who is to be master—the people’s duly elected representatives, or a private enterprise?  

The Florida legislature passed H.B. 1557, the Parental Rights in Education Act, on March 8, 2022. The bill sought to “prohibit[ ] classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” for students in kindergarten through third grade, provided parents with more transparency about any “critical decisions affecting a student's mental, emotional, or physical well-being,” and prevented schools from adopting policies that purposefully kept parents in the dark. The left nicknamed H.B. 1557 the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.


When the media initially started referring to H.B. 1557 as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the governor had no idea what they were referring to. “All of a sudden, I'm out doing just random press conferences, and I hear the media start repeating [‘Don’t Say Gay’],” DeSantis told me with a chuckle. 

After years of clashes with the media over Covid-19 and critical race theory, the governor immediately knew what this was: “B.S.” For DeSantis, it was the perfect illustration of establishment mediocrity and laziness. “It's an example of the left creating kind of a narrative and literally corporate press just echoing exactly what the left is saying,” he said.

H.B. 1557 was ill-received by the self-proclaimed happiest place on earth. As the bill was being considered, Disney employees organized to pressure management, specifically then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek, to condemn the legislation. Chapek and the company had been silent on the bill, while former (and now current) Disney CEO Bob Iger had come out against it on Twitter. 

The week the legislation passed, Chapek sent an internal email to Disney employees seeking to signal the company’s “commitment to the LGBTQ+ community,” despite its silence on H.B. 1557. 

“In terms of our communities, we are and will continue to be a leader in supporting organizations that champion diversity. In 2021, we provided nearly $3 million to support the work of LGBTQ+ organizations. And, we have a long history of supporting important events like Pride parades,” Chapek wrote. 

“I do not want anyone to mistake a lack of statement [on H.B. 1557] for a lack of support,” he continued. “We all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world. Where we may differ is in the tactics to get there.” 

Chapek’s memo only added fuel to the fire. #BoycottDisney trended on Twitter. 

On March 9, the day after the legislature voted to send H.B. 1557 to the governor’s desk, Chapek faced some of his critics during a shareholder meeting. At the meeting, Chapek reportedly said off-camera that “While we’ve been strong supporters of the community for decades, I know that many are upset that we did not speak out against the bill.” 

Nevertheless, Chapek affirmed that Disney was “opposed to the bill from the outset, and we chose not to take a public position because we felt we could be more effective working behind the scenes directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.”

DeSantis, however, said that if Disney was actively lobbying against the bill in Tallahassee, he heard nothing about it. Per the governor, Disney has “a fleet of lobbyists here,” but “they didn't say a word about it.”

“Prior to April 2022, they had enough lobbying muscle with the legislature that they pretty much got everything they wanted,” DeSantis said. “I don't know that there's anything over many, many decades that they lost on.”

In the past, Disney has been able to water down even important bipartisan pieces of legislation, according to the governor: “They just accumulated a lot of political power.” He pointed to previous legislation surrounding human trafficking, claiming that “Disney lobbied against having their hotels play more of a role in putting out information” about trafficking.

Florida’s relationship with Disney and the tourism and entertainment industries more broadly is not unlike other states with large, powerful corporate interests focused on one industry—Silicon Valley and California, Wall Street and New York, credit-card companies and Delaware.

But the battle over H.B. 1557 wasn’t about Disney’s bottom line. It was a battle over the cultural direction of the state of Florida and beyond.

DeSantis told me Chapek called him at one point to talk about H.B. 1557. “The CEO did call me one day,” DeSantis recounted. “My sense was he didn't want to get involved in it, but he was getting a lot of pressure.”

“I just told him it’s a false narrative.” DeSantis said he went through the legislation and plainly told Chapek, “Look, I see no problem with this.”

The outrage machine continued to churn at the mouse house. On March 11, Chapek apologized to all of Disney’s 200,000 employees in a company-wide email—to no avail. The protests continued. In response, Disney said, “We respect our colleagues’ right to express their views, and we pledge our ongoing support of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community in the fight for equal rights.”

On March 28, DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act into law. “It was just an obvious piece of legislation,” DeSantis said with a shrug.

“Parents’ rights have been increasingly under assault around the nation, but in Florida we stand up for the rights of parents and the fundamental role they play in the education of their children,” DeSantis said in a statement at the time. “Parents have every right to be informed about services offered to their child at school, and should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old.”

But Disney caved to the pressure. “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that,” the company said in a statement after the law passed. “We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Florida and across the country.” With that, the stage was set for a showdown between the governor and the corporate behemoth.

When Walt Disney, with his brother Roy and Democratic Florida Gov. Haydon Burns, announced that his company was building an attraction in Florida on November 15, 1965, he said he wanted to build “something that would command the respect of the community.”

“The important thing,” Walt continued, with the paternal charm that had earned him fans the world over, “is the family…that’s been the backbone of our whole business, catering to the families, and that’s what we hope to do.”

“Walt's vision is what they should subscribe to,” DeSantis said after I read him the quote from Walt’s 1965 press conference. Decades of slow institutional capture by progressives has caused Disney to err from Walt’s pro-family patriotism.

The same can be said for nearly every institution that makes up the nation’s commanding heights. These institutions, DeSantis argued, are being held hostage by “a cabal of people who will go berserk if they don’t get their way”—zealots with “a very strong ideological impulse” that manages to overwhelm whatever institutional structures get in their way.

“Sometimes you just need an executive to come in and tell them to pound sand,” DeSantis said with a firm rap on his desk. “Sorry!”

In a phone interview, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts agreed with DeSantis’s evaluation, noting that the left’s campaign to capture the nation’s institutions has come with the “demise of what social scientists would call the mediating institutions of civil society.”

Sometimes you just need an executive to come in and tell them to pound sand.

— Governor Ron DeSantis

“Over that span of time when the left has essentially captured most large businesses, what also has happened is the deterioration of the nuclear family, the assault on biological sex, and construing that as gender, and obviously, the demise of traditional marriage,” Roberts said.

“The absence of institutions that can help them withstand that pressure,” Roberts went on to say, leads to “this institutional demise is vitally important to understanding what's going on in America."

DeSantis has a simple message for Disney if it wants to correct its course: “Just focus on being family-friendly.” He and Florida legislators had some ideas to take Disney’s potential distractions off their plate so they can focus on just that.

“When Disney first came out against the bill [H.B. 1557]," DeSantis said, "people in the legislature started floating this idea of going after Reedy Creek."

In 1958, Walt started considering a larger project out east. Disneyland, which opened just three years earlier, had become a massive success. Once the park opened, however, real estate prices in the surrounding area soared as kitschy themed hotels and other attractions moved in. That infuriated Walt, who wanted to prevent a repeat of the Anaheim situation for his next project by buying up enough land to insulate the park and ensure total control over the area. 

The mission was top secret. If their plans somehow got out, property prices would likely skyrocket as they did in Anaheim. But how was one of the most famous companies in America, led by one of the nation’s most famous men, going to purchase thousands of acres and not raise eyebrows? Conveniently, key figures on Disney’s land-acquisition team had counterintelligence experience and connections, which they used to obscure the company’s plans in Florida. Written memorandums were avoided as much as possible, but when they were needed, each copy of a memo was numbered, assigned, returned, and then accounted for by the distributor. Calls from Florida to California were rerouted through New York to disguise Disney’s involvement. Subscriptions to local papers in Florida were taken out under aliases, initials, nicknames, or the names of their secretaries, and addressed to post office boxes.

Robert P. Foster, Disney’s assistant secretary and legal counsel, spearheaded the land acquisition effort. Foster was connected with Miami-based attorney Paul L.E. Helliwell, who, according to a CIA document, was the “chief of special intelligence in China,” for the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.

By spring of 1965, the team managed to purchase over 43 square miles, twice the size of Manhattan, for about $5 million—a per-acre cost of under $200. The operation had been a success.

On the plane back to California after the November 15, 1965, press conference, Walt’s attorneys and advisors started to ask him about the state’s involvement with their future plans. The best course of action, they advised, was to establish their own municipality. Disney needed more convincing.

As planning got underway, Disney established a think-tank of sorts for the Florida project. The attorneys and experts he brought in found that Florida Statute Chapter 298 allowed for the creation of a drainage district via district court approval, which would enable Disney to drain and redirect water using canals and build other infrastructure, like bridges, to make the property more accessible. What got Roy Disney excited about the prospect of a drainage district, however, was that it could sell bonds to fund its work. 

Disney’s bid to establish the Reedy Creek Drainage District was approved in May 1966, but the brain trust realized they needed more power if the project was to unfold and operate as planned. Their attorneys and experts said Disney needed to exercise broad authority over infrastructure projects, building codes, utilities, and transportation systems, and receive exemptions from state statutes, county ordinances, and other regulatory bodies. Disney also wanted to seek more financial powers, such as the ability to issue bonds and securities and levy its own taxes, among other things. 

More than anything, Walt wanted total control; he agreed with the plan. As the attorneys grappled with the legalities, Walt did what he did best: envision the future. He made what would become known as the EPCOT film, detailing his plans more concretely than ever before for the Florida property, and showed it to his team.

Less than two months later, on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died. 

Roy, the numbers nerd, would have to fill in the shoes of his imaginative little brother and sell his vision to the state’s people, its representatives, and the press. In February 1967, Disney hosted a press event at the Park West Theater in Winter Park, Florida. After the EPCOT film played, Roy stood where his brother would have stood just a few months prior: in the spotlight. 

“Wasn’t that a dream?” Roy asked the audience. “It cannot be done without the help of you people here in Florida…we must have a solid legal foundation before we can proceed with Disney World…. This foundation can be assured by the legislative proposals we are presenting to the next session of the Florida legislature.”

On April 19, 1967, Disney’s legislation was officially introduced in the Florida House and Senate. Disney played the EPCOT film again, on both the House and Senate floor. By mid-May, the 481-page piece of legislation was signed into law with minimal changes from Disney’s suggested language.

“The interesting thing about that is, as governor, I never dealt with Reedy Creek,” DeSantis said. “I had no concept of all they had, because it just never came up. No one ever talked about it. It was never raised with me.”

DeSantis and his team started digging. What they found astonished the governor: “The amount of privileges they have and special treatment was unbelievable. It was unlike anything else we’ve ever seen.”

In late March 2022, DeSantis began publicly floating the idea of taking away Disney’s special privileges. “Because the state should be governed by the best interests of the people, you should not have one organization that is able to dictate policy in all these different realms,” DeSantis said at a March 31, 2022, press conference.

In our conversation, the governor said that Florida has many “community development districts”—over 1,000 of them, actually, including Cape Canaveral and the Daytona race track. Such a district, of itself, is “not uncommon…but to have one company run the government and have these extraordinary powers?” That was unusual and troubling.

“For example, they had the ability to do eminent domain outside the district’s boundaries. So you have a subdivision somewhere on the outskirts of Reedy Creek—Disney could seize that for them to be able to do more infrastructure for the district.” Such an arrangement, the governor argued, was “untenable,” “unjustifiable,” and “really, really obnoxious.”

The voters recognized that long before a lot of Florida Republicans did, the governor suggested. “Disney had this veneer of invincibility politically so that no one would even look at this.” But because of the company’s opposition to H.B. 1557, “Disney had fallen out of favor with our base,” and, thus, became “unpopular with a lot of the legislators.” Voters pressed the Reedy Creek issue, imploring the governor that Reedy Creek should be no more. The governor heard them. 

In the middle of April 2022, DeSantis said the legislature would be taking up a bill to dismantle the Reedy Creek Improvement District during a special legislative session, which was devised originally to consider the new congressional map. By that afternoon, committees in both the Florida state House and Senate had advanced measures that would put an end to Reedy Creek and five other special districts on June 1, 2023. 

The day after its proposal, the Senate voted in favor of the legislation, S.B. 4C, nearly two to one. The House did the same by a similar margin. The governor promptly signed the bill into law the following day.

“When you have a leader with courage, it gives everyone else political cover to follow him, and that's what conservatives need is someone who has the courage to lead,” Florida State Rep. Spencer Roach told me in a phone interview. “People will follow, people will respond.”

But there were problems associated with just outright ending Reedy Creek. And they were big ones. First, the unique positioning of Reedy Creek between Orange and Osceola counties made splitting responsibilities—emergency services, infrastructure maintenance, water, utilities, sewage, et cetera—a nightmare. Then there was the question of Reedy Creek’s outstanding liabilities. The special tax district status Reedy Creek provided Disney meant that the district essentially taxed the company at the tune of $105 million per year to pay for such municipal services. Furthermore, Disney forked over about $60 million per year to Reedy Creek in order for the district to pay its debts on bonds. Essentially, Disney would subsidize itself for the upkeep of the property and the payments of its debts. 

Under the initial plan to strip Disney of its privileges, Disney might not have been the only ones up a Reedy Creek—Orange and Osceola counties might have been, too.

The counties would be without the powers Reedy Creek had to directly tax Disney, meaning some of those costs would be passed on to local taxpayers. There was about $1 billion in debt that Orange and Osceola county residents would ultimately bear responsibility for servicing. To offset those liabilities, some experts estimated property taxes would increase between 20 to 25 percent. The measure's detractors, especially the media, clamored that Disney’s burden would become Orange and Osceola’s. DeSantis said this reaction to sun-setting Reedy Creek was vastly overblown. 

“I told them that’s not true, that’s not going to happen, Disney’s going to pay,” DeSantis said. But the point of passing the legislation to end Reedy Creek in April of 2022 was to start a running clock for the state government to find a long-term resolution to the conflict with Disney.

“We weren’t comfortable just letting it [Reedy Creek] go, because the Orange County government was saying they’re going to raise people’s taxes and we wanted to protect the taxpayers,” DeSantis explained. 

Disney wasn’t prepared to let Reedy Creek, and all the powers it granted, go either.

In the spring of 2023, DeSantis and Florida legislators finished what they started the year prior. In February, DeSantis signed legislation that took control of Reedy Creek Improvement District and renamed it the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District. 

It’s no silver bullet, but having an appointed state board take control seemed to solve the major practical and political challenges that would have accompanied simply destroying Reedy Creek.

“One of the factors,” in deciding to have a state board take control, the governor said, “was there is about 900 million in unsecured municipal debt that they [Disney’s Reedy Creek] had racked up.” Furthermore, there were political concerns. For example, “we didn't know, because Orange County’s local government is going to be hostile to me politically, if they would have just contracted back with Disney to give them self-government,” DeSantis explained. The best way to deal with that issue and others, the governor and his allies found, was appointing “a state control board.”

Under the prior arrangement, Disney was allowed to appoint all five of the district’s board members. As of early March when the legislation took effect, that job now falls to the Florida governor.

The legislation signed by DeSantis, H.B. 9, is a lengthy 191 pages, which is fitting, given the state government has essentially had to reestablish an entire municipality that will once again find itself under meaningful control of the state. Beyond revoking Disney’s self-governing status, the legislation also puts an end to Disney’s exemptions from Florida building and fire-prevention codes, exceptions from state regulatory reviews and approvals, and its immunity from certain tax burdens. Florida law will be fully enforced, and Disney will still be responsible for the debts it racked up while in charge of Reedy Creek.

For DeSantis, it’s not a revolution. It’s a restoration. “Allowing a corporation to control its own government is bad policy, especially when the corporation makes decisions that impact an entire region,” DeSantis proclaimed upon signing the legislation. “This legislation ends Disney’s self-governing status, makes Disney live under the same laws as everybody else, and ensures that Disney pays its debts and fair share of taxes.”

Disney wasn’t going to willingly relinquish control over the land and power it had fought so hard to obtain. This media empire strikes back.

Before DeSantis signed H.B. 9 in late February, the Disney-controlled Reedy Creek board entered into an agreement with Disney with the purpose of neutralizing the incoming takeover. The agreement, entered into on February 8—just two days before the Florida Senate passed the legislation that would later become law—essentially gave total control of the complex’s 27,000 acres directly to Disney. 

This had been, in effect, how things were with the Disney-appointed board. But to save its privileges, Disney was willing to drop all pretense of mediating institutions and take direct control at a corporate level. 

The February 8 agreement, essentially struck between Disney and itself, outlines a “declaration of restrictive covenants” and includes a royal lives clause, which states that the agreement is valid until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, king of England.”

Apparently, the Florida government and DeSantis’s new board were unaware of the agreement until the board attempted to assume control of the district. The agreement “essentially makes Disney the government,” Ron Peri, one of the DeSantis appointed board members, told the Orlando Sentinel. “This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintain the roads and maintain basic infrastructure.”

Disney has stood by its actions. In a statement to Deadline, the Walt Disney World Resort said, “All agreements signed between Disney and the District were appropriate, and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law.” It does appear that the agreement and associated governmental activity was filed with the Orange County Comptroller—there is a record of the agreement on its website dated February 9.

Alan Lawson, an attorney representing the DeSantis-appointed board in its current suit against Disney, as well as a former Florida Supreme Court justice and founding partner of the firm Lawson Huck Gonzalez, argued that the parties did not in fact act in accordance with Florida law. 

“The law in Florida says if a governmental entity is going to enter this kind of contract, it has to follow a very specific public notice to give an opportunity for anybody who has an interest to be heard in a meeting in the sunshine. And Disney, sitting as its own governmental entity, ignored required procedural rules,” Lawson explained. “What you have is what purports to be a validly entered contract under Florida law, but it’s not at all a validly entered contract.”

DeSantis, the Republican legislature, and the appointed board weren’t going to take the agreement lying down. The board quickly voted to nullify the early February agreement. The governor announced on April 17 the government’s intent to pass legislation that would revoke the self-contract Disney signed in the waning hours of its reign over Reedy Creek. He said that Disney is “going to live under the same laws as everybody else, pay their fair share of taxes, and honor the debts that they’ve accumulated over these years.”

DeSantis, citing Florida law, argued that the state reserves the right to revoke development agreements like the one Disney signed in early February. His administration vowed to see Disney in court.

Disney decided to sue the state first. The media mammoth filed a lawsuit on April 26 alleging DeSantis and other state political leaders are waging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation” that violates Disney’s First Amendment and contract rights.

“What the legislature did was affect Reedy Creek, which is a public entity,” DeSantis replied when asked about Disney’s lawsuit and the support it has garnered from some right-leaning libertarians. “They didn’t do anything to touch Disney’s free speech rights. Did they pull ABC’s broadcast license? Did they say Disney can’t speak out about anything? Of course not. They took a government that had been authorized by the state of Florida that, yes, had been basically corrupted by Disney’s influence and run by Disney, and they put accountability on it.”

“I mean, the idea you have a First Amendment right to corporate welfare or having a local government that you basically control with no accountability is ridiculous,” the governor scoffed.

“The interesting thing about the Disney example is that DeSantis wasn’t going after Disney because Disney was being woke,” Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass, commented. “Disney can put whatever crap it wants on the Disney Channel, and that wasn’t necessarily going to elicit a response. What elicited response was Disney’s decision to try to get involved in the political process.”

“That’s another really interesting challenge for the right of center is the sort of Citizens United-era assumption, that there’s no problem with corporations speaking, they’re just people, is probably not a very good one,” Cass continued. “I think there’s some very interesting rethinking of Citizens United starting to happen.”

The idea you have a First Amendment right to corporate welfare... is ridiculous.

— Governor Ron DeSantis

Less than a week later, the DeSantis-appointed board filed their own lawsuit in Orange County, Florida. The Magic Kingdom, the lawsuit claims, wanted to maintain its “fiefdom,” whereas the board is seeking to “restore the people’s sovereignty.” Because this agreement was entered into in “haste or arrogance” and “reek[s] of a backroom deal,” it should be declared “null and void—not even worth the paper they were printed on.”

Lawson explained to me in a phone interview that the legislature was well within its rights to revoke Disney’s special privileges. “The sovereign is the state of Florida, and under the Florida constitution, the Constitution gives the legislature the power to create local government. One of the ways that the legislature can exercise that power is by creating counties, which is specifically provided for in the constitution. It can change them, it can abolish them, it can create cities, change them, and abolish them, because the legislature is the policy-making branch of the state.”

Disney had “extraordinary privileges for decades that allowed it to police itself and be its own government,” Lawson later stated. “Regardless of political party, if you generally ask people, is this a good idea to put a private for-profit corporation in charge of its own government without any accountability of government, most people would say no, that that's not a good idea. When the legislature acted, it simply restored things to normal order for Disney under [a] legitimate governmental body.”

DeSantis said the board will continue to “systematically put Disney under the law of the state of Florida, which is what we promised.”

“There’s a real opportunity to create more prosperity,” Martin Garcia, chairman of the newly-minted Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, said in a phone interview. “What we’re currently stuck in, if you think about it, is an urban planning model that was designed in 1967. It’s a dinosaur from an urban planning perspective, and it makes perfectly good sense that we bring it into the 21st century.”

“Urban planning wasn’t even a profession in 1967,” Garcia continued, “and so there’s all sorts of concepts that can be brought into the district from an urban planning standpoint to change things that make it more prosperous for more people.”

As the governor leaned back in his chair behind the governor’s desk, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that, among the American right, DeSantis is well aware he’s pushing the envelope. 

Over the past three years in particular, through Covid-19, DeSantis has built a brand as a no-nonsense conservative. While the governor, like the Floridians he’s been elected to represent, often frames these policy debates as "normal versus woke" and "common sense versus leftist insanity," the fundamental questions about his style of governance, particularly when it comes to Disney, are not lost on him. He is well aware he is challenging the establishment right’s preferred way of politics.

“What is a free market?” DeSantis shot back, cutting me off mid-question as I cited other right-of-center writers that complained DeSantis did not have adequate “fealty” to free-market principles.

“Does an absence of government necessarily mean free market?” DeSantis asked rhetorically. “I would say, sometimes, absence of government could just devolve into corporatism, and I think too many people on the right have basically been corporatists over the years.”

“What even is the free market is exactly the right [question],” Cass said when I told him about DeSantis’s comment. “The analogy I’ve started drawing that I think makes sense, is what do we mean by democracy? By democracy, we don’t mean everybody just votes on everything. Democracy is shorthand for actually a very sophisticated system of institutions with constraints and checks and balances.”

“Why is it that well intentioned, smart, free-market advocates have such a problem with what DeSantis is doing with Disney?” Roberts asked. “It’s because they’re conflating the free market in theory, or the free market as an ideal, with mostly what we have in the United States today, which is corporatism.” From Roberts’s perspective, “Disney, like so many other Fortune 500 companies, has just lived at the trough of corporatism for too long, and then they shield themselves in the fake armor of the free market, when in fact, it isn’t the free market at all.”

Does an absence of government necessarily mean free market?

— Governor Ron DeSantis

When it comes to markets, “for conservatives, there are obviously a lot of things to really like,” Cass said. But conservatives differ from libertarians or free-market fundamentalists, in that they are willing to “recognize plenty of things to be concerned about when it comes to markets.” Markets “don’t take consideration of the many other non-market values that are as important if not more to human flourishing.”

Those “shilling for Disney” need to come to terms with the fact that “corporate America is not your friend on a lot of things,” DeSantis added, and if you “defer to corporations, you're going to end up seeing the economy and society go in ways that may not be advantageous for the majority of the people.”

His libertarian critics might bemoan our current welfare state, but they’re for a welfare of a different kind: corporate welfare. 

“If you’re a libertarian, how do you justify Reedy Creek? That’s the opposite of libertarianism,” DeSantis said with a firm, instructive tone towards his detractors. “It is corporate welfare,” DeSantis added. “We are under no obligation as a state to continue that arrangement.” Failing to act when a massive company with quasi-governmental powers vows “to wage a jihad against this bill legislatively means we're subsidizing that activity" amounts to subsidizing that behavior, DeSantis suggested. "Why would we want to subsidize that?"

Roach agreed. “What people in D.C. fail to recognize is the distinction between capitalism and crony capitalism,” he said. “And what has been allowed to happen with Disney over the last sixty years in Florida, it is, in my opinion, the most outrageous, the most egregious and the most naked example of crony capitalism in the history of America.”

The problem goes beyond the fact that Disney has gone “woke.” Our current economic structure has empowered many large companies with “quasi-public power” that “should cause us to be more engaged,” DeSantis argued.

“We’ve given them special privileges associated with sovereign governments, and let them exploit that to the economic disadvantage of people who would be their competitors,” Roach said, echoing the governor’s stance. “That’s simply wrong. That should not be allowed to happen in the state of Florida, it should not be allowed to happen in the United States.”

“If you look at some of these companies, like Google, and look at the footprint that they have, they don't necessarily offend historical antitrust law because the antitrust law is focusing on jacking up prices on people,” DeSantis admitted. “But I would say they’re exercising way more power than Standard Oil ever did, or any of the trust of the early 20th century. So the question is, is it okay to have a handful of private power centers that really, really dominate our society? And is it appropriate to have something like an antitrust principle applied there? I think it probably would be appropriate.”

“Protecting what we believe is a free society,” for DeSantis, means preventing “social transformation without representation.”

“We’re a distinct country. We have a distinct people, and that needs to mean something. We have an identifiable culture. We have identifiable traditions,” he went on to say. “And I think a lot of [the left's] project is to really undermine a lot of the institutions and traditions and values that have stood the test of time.”

By using private actors to wield public power, the left, progressive and neoliberal, circumvents the will of the people. “Why would they try to do that? Because they want to delegitimize the founding of this country. Delegitimize the institutions that that generation spawned, and then say, you know what, our founding principles need to be modern day leftist ideology,” DeSantis told me.

“What Americans writ large are realizing is this is our moment.” Roberts said, commenting on the way DeSantis seems to be leading the charge against the left’s cultural agenda. “This is our moment to demand that our politicians use the power they have. This is the moment for us to demand of companies, whether they’re Google, or Facebook, or Disney, that you listen to us, rather than ram down our throats and into our own families all of the garbage that you’ve been pushing on us. This is our time to demand that you do what we say. And it’s glorious.”

“A lot of these fights are really foundational fights about what it means to be an American,” DeSantis said as our interview came to an end. “So, it’s something that we fight for.”