Republican attacks on “woke” American corporations are exposing deep divides within the GOP, with some Republicans worried the party is straying from its roots by going after the internal politics of big businesses.
The Republican at the center of the fight is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has tested the limits of the party’s appetite for government crackdowns on private industry with his war on Disney and Disney World.
Prominent Republicans are denouncing DeSantis’s efforts to punish Disney for speaking out against what critics dubbed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Separately, a push by conservatives to boycott Bud Light over its marketing partnership with a transgender influencer has also sparked internal debates.
Debate looms large over 2024 race
DeSantis is drawing heat from his potential 2024 presidential opponents for escalating his months-long feud with Disney, one of Florida’s largest employers and taxpayers.
Former President Trump, who is leading DeSantis in the polls, said last week that DeSantis is “being absolutely destroyed by Disney.”
“Disney’s next move will be the announcement that no more money will be invested in Florida because of the Governor,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, later speculating that Disney might leave the state entirely.
Other possible 2024 Republican contenders, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, have accused DeSantis of betraying conservative principles of limited government intervention.
“I don’t think Ron DeSantis is a conservative based on his actions toward Disney,” Christie said during an event hosted by Semafor. “Where are we headed here now that if you express disagreement in this country, the government is allowed to punish you?”
Why DeSantis is feuding with Disney
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference at the Reedy Creek Administration Building, Monday, April 17, 2023, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
DeSantis signed a bill to strip Disney of its power to control a 39-mile district surrounding its Florida resort after the company publicly criticized Florida Republicans’ law to limit discussion of sexual orientation and gender in schools.
But Disney appeared to find a workaround to keep control of the district, and its CEO publicly rebuked DeSantis as being “anti-business.” That prompted DeSantis to propose additional punitive measures, even suggesting that he might consider building a state prison near Walt Disney World.
“I think there’s some sense that businesses are getting a little bit more willing to push back than they were for maybe the last year,” said Daniella Ballou-Aares, CEO of the Leadership Now Project, a group of business leaders concerned about the state of U.S. democracy.
“They’re seeing that if you’re silent when you get pushback from political leaders, they’ll keep at it.”
Bud Light boycotts highlight GOP divide
Cans of Bud Light beer are seen in Washington, Thursday Jan. 10, 2019. The marketing executive who oversaw a partnership between Bud Light and a transgender influencer is taking a leave of absence after it snowballed into cries for boycotts from some angry customers, according to media reports, Friday, April 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Bud Light emerged as the most recent brand to face a political firestorm after it launched a marketing partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, an outspoken activist for transgender rights.
Conservative media members called for a boycott, and DeSantis attacked Bud Light for “trying to push transgenderism” during a speech in South Carolina last week.
“These are corporations, mostly very wealthy, powerful corporations, trying to leverage their economic power to change our country,” DeSantis said.
Many Republicans didn’t join in on those efforts, however. Donald Trump Jr. told conservatives to back off of Anheuser-Busch, Bud Light’s parent company, citing its large political donations to Republicans.
“That’s literally almost unheard of in corporate America, where it’s really easy to go woke, where they do so constantly, where there’s a consequence to actually being a conservative,” Trump Jr. said on his podcast.
In the 2022 election cycle, Anheuser-Busch gave around 78 percent of its donations to Republicans, according to nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) brought in nearly $465,000 from the company’s PAC and executives.
The NRCC deleted a recent tweet stating that conservatives “can all finally admit that Bud Light tastes like water” due to the controversy.
GOP attacks have real consequences for companies
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) leaves an all-Senators briefing on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to discuss the leaked documents on a Discord chatroom by Massachusetts Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeria. (Greg Nash)
Anheuser-Busch saw its stock fall 5 percent earlier this month amid conservative calls for a Bud Light boycott, wiping out billions of dollars in value. Its top U.S. competitor, Molson Coors Brewing, enjoyed a 12 percent bump over the same period.
The company reportedly put Bud Light’s vice president of marketing on a leave of absence. That’s after Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth said in a statement that the company “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.”
In mid-April, Anheuser-Busch hired a lobbyist who served as a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was one of the most prominent GOP lawmakers to speak out against the company.
“When I saw this whole thing, my first thought was, ‘Have they ever met a typical Bud Light drinker?’” Cruz said on his podcast earlier this month.
Large corporations are under pressure from shareholders, customers and their employees to take a stance on certain social and political issues. As workforces have grown more diverse, employees at certain companies are coming to expect their leaders to speak out.
Republicans, meanwhile, are becoming more aggressive in challenging decisions by private businesses that don’t align with their political views.
A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of GOP voters view “fighting woke ideology” as a top priority.
The definition of “woke” has expanded in recent years. DeSantis signed a bill that would prohibit diversity training in the workplace. He’s also leading an effort to block investment managers from considering environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.
Not all Republican voters approve of the anti-ESG push, which a small number of conservative critics have criticized as government overreach.
A March poll from Penn State’s Smeal College of Business found that only 32 percent of Republican voters support their state government “excluding certain financial institutions from state investment portfolios due to their stance on environmental or social issues.”