Ron DeSantis’ war with Disney is escalating. The company sued the Florida governor in federal court this week and said his crusade against its special status in the state is politically motivated and a violation of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ Republican colleagues in the state are openly questioning his strategy in the press, saying Disney is “playing the long game” and appears to have the upper hand, for better or for worse.
This all feels familiar to Mark I. Pinsky, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter who, back in the 1990s, extensively covered Disney’s last skirmish in a conservative-led culture war. The Southern Baptist Convention had launched a boycott against Disney in protest of the company’s support of its LGBT employees and Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom. In a call this week, Pinsky, the author of The Gospel According to Disney, described how DeSantis’ current crusade mirrors the religious right’s initial attempt to take on Disney—and what history tells us about where this is going. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Aymann Ismail: Can you give me some context for the last conservative boycott of Disney? How did it start?
Mark I. Pinsky: Shortly after Disney announced its LGBT health benefits policy in Burbank, there were several individual Southern Baptist Convention congregations in Florida who were super pissed off about it. Disney announced that they were going to provide health benefits to LGBT employees. Some Baptists began circulating a boycott proposal in Florida. And that put the issue in play for the national organization.
This guy, Tim Wildmon from the American Family Association, was one of the early progenitors of this idea, but it really didn’t take off until the Southern Baptist Convention signed on to it. In the beginning, there was some reluctance at the top of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is very conservative. It became clear to me that they have a keen political sense. And I think the people at the very top of the Southern Baptist Convention knew that it was very chancy to take on Disney. And they kind of dragged their heels until their constituency basically pushed the leadership into signing on to this boycott.
In the beginning, it looked like a fair fight in terms of power. The Southern Baptist Convention had much of their power in the Sun Belt, 16 million people. And Disney was Disney. It looked like the outcome was uncertain.
How did Disney’s content play into it?
I fought about this with Richard Land, the Southern Baptist president, over the years. He said it wasn’t the health policy, it was the content. And I looked back and checked the record, and I don’t think that’s true. He didn’t want the Southern Baptists to be painted as know-nothing bigots. So he couldn’t say that that was the precipitating factor, but it was, in my view.
There was also a sort of ugly undercurrent of antisemitism, because Disney was now basically under the control of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. The Disney of beloved WASP America was the last remaining Hollywood studio not in the control of the Jews or immigrants. No one ever said this, but I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve been a Jew for a long time, and I can smell it when I smell it.
Did the boycott ultimately succeed in hurting Disney?
Disney just dug its heels. I mean, they basically said to the Southern Baptist Convention, “Fuck you, we don’t need you.” I don’t know whether the Disney guys were just arrogant or confident, but from the very beginning, they gave not an inch. Maybe it’s a profile in courage. Maybe it’s just pragmatism. I don’t know what was in their minds. I never got to talk to Katzenberg. I did speak briefly to Eisner at a book event, but he wouldn’t tell me anything anyway.
The Baptists quickly learned that there was no real alternative in terms of popular culture for young children other than Disney. So, they were talking about sacrifice. And I think sacrifice is one thing if they’re asking adults to make it. Disney parks had by that time become a cultural imperative. Which is to say, if you wanted to be a good parent or a good grandparent, taking your children or grandchildren to one of the Disney parks became a cultural imperative. That’s one of the things—one of the boxes you had to tick. And they were a little bit queasy with trying to tell a 7-year-old that we’re not going to Disneyland or Disney World because we think they’re not as friendly to evangelicals as Walt was 30 years ago.
What was the atmosphere in Orlando at the time? What was the public perception of it?
There was still strong resistance to LGBT stuff. The city of Orlando has always been very progressive, relatively speaking. But when they wanted to just simply put up rainbow flags in downtown Orlando, the Baptists showed up at these meetings and said, “You can’t do this. You’re normalizing aberrant behavior.” I’ve never seen a bigger turnaround in the American political mood than on gay rights.
When you look today, they are focusing on trans people because there are fewer of them. There are people who are still queasy about them to some degree, so picking a much more vulnerable target, having learned that attacking gay people has become a loser. At that point in 1995, it was not evident it was a loser.
The Florida governors in the ’90s were Democrats, and then Jeb Bush took over starting in 1999. Did they get involved in the boycott at all? Was it an issue for politicians the way it is now?
It devolved into a regional issue. Bible Belt versus Burbank, essentially. And no secular politician was sure enough about the outcome to jump in for their own personal political advantage. I can remember state legislators in Florida and other people urging caution, because they realized it was a double-edged sword: cultural sensitivities versus economic livelihood. And I think that was such a fraught issue that nobody saw a quick way to exploit it.
It’s the opposite now. It’s like DeSantis is holding a knife to his own throat. Religion is very important to people in Florida, but livelihood trumps that every time. Anything that hurts Disney hurts people’s livelihood. And in Florida, if you threaten people’s livelihood or you raise their taxes, they’ll turn on you. They don’t care what party you’re a part of.
You think this is a clear loser for DeSantis?
DeSantis, in my view—and I’ve been covering Southern politics since 1972—is a political thug, a bully, and an arrogant person. Since his rise, no one of equal stature, until now, has stood up to him and said no. I think he really didn’t understand the power that a corporation like Disney wields. This business is such a major economic factor in central Florida.
Let’s say the fight continues between Disney and DeSantis. In the end, what is DeSantis going to say? Don’t come to Disney World? He can’t say that. That would be too much in Florida, even for culture warriors. Now, it may be that he cares more about how that will play in Indiana or in Arkansas, where people are not dependent on Disney for their livelihoods. At some point, he will overstep his bounds, and when the mask slips, it’ll show that he’s a cynical cultural warrior.
What do you think is his play now?
I would say, find a subtle way to back away. DeSantis took a real hit when it turned out that Disney had outsmarted the five stooges he put on the Reedy Creek board. It was not the fact that they lost so much, but that they got the better of him. And that’s when you begin to see these Republican megadonors saying, “Well, maybe not.” DeSantis can’t afford another episode like that where it looks like he was bested by Disney. So if I were advising him, I would say find a way to lower the temperature, and put forward some other issues that will do you well but don’t have as much of a fuck-up potential.
I don’t think he realized that Disney punches back, and they may punch back better than he punches. He shouldn’t set himself up to stand or fall on whether he can get Disney to capitulate, because he will never get Disney to capitulate. It will not happen. It didn’t happen in the ’90s, and for sure it’s not going to happen now. And if you had to bet, would you bet on an ambitious Florida governor, or would you bet on a multibillion-dollar corporation that knows what its audience wants?