“Nice company you’ve got there; be a shame if something happened to it. Maybe you should save yourself some trouble and sell it to our buddy.”
That’s the message 18 House Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-OH), sent on Friday with a letter demanding Twitter’s board of directors preserve all records related to the bid by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to purchase the company. The right’s propagandists had celebrated Musk’s bid as a way to garner political gain by ending the company’s purported political censorship. Then its elected GOP champions, responding to hesitation from Twitter’s board, raised the prospect of a costly congressional investigation if his offer wasn’t accepted.
The GOP’s ham-fisted threat reflects the party’s institutionalization of former President Donald Trump’s authoritarian use of government power to impose political retribution on individual companies that defied him -- particularly those that owned news outlets. Now, Republicans are adopting similar strategies in the name of fighting so-called “woke capital,” and right-wing media are cheering them on.
Trump regularly used legitimate regulatory tools to illegitimate ends, punishing corporations over news reporting that displeased him while favoring those whose programming praised him.
Trump’s opposition to AT&T’s proposed purchase of Time Warner, declared in the waning days of the 2016 presidential race, was nakedly corrupt. There are legitimate reasons to worry about such megamergers. But Trump was clearly driven by his desire to impose costs on Time Warner for the critical coverage of him and his administration by its subsidiary, CNN. Once Trump took office, he could use the power of the federal government to enforce his authoritarian whims. The Justice Department filed an unusual and ultimately ineffective lawsuit aimed at stopping it.
Trump’s denunciations of news outlets were often followed by threats or acts of federal regulatory retribution. He repeatedly attacked coverage by the “Amazon Washington Post,” then Amazon lost out on a massive Defense Department contract while Trump himself tried to force the Postal Service to raise shipping costs for the company (Jeff Bezos owns both Amazon and the Post, where my wife works). His attacks on Google were followed by a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit. After lashing out at NBC’s coverage during a 2020 rally, he quickly transitioned to smearing its parent company, Comcast, and warning that he would “do everything possible to destroy their image.”
Meanwhile, Fox News’ pro-Trump propaganda repeatedly paid off for its founder Rupert Murdoch’s business interests. The White House publicly approved of Murdoch selling his entertainment holdings to The Walt Disney Co., and the resulting megamerger -- with a scope quite similar to the AT&T-Time Warner deal -- sailed through DOJ scrutiny.
Trump created incentives for major corporations to either squelch negative reporting from its subsidiaries or ditch them altogether. His actions were typically haphazard and often ineffective -- but at times, they came unnervingly close to success.
In 2017, while the AT&T-Time Warner merger was bogged down by the DOJ lawsuit, AT&T’s CEO reportedly received an unsolicited pitch from Murdoch to buy CNN “to get the deal done.” At the time, Murdoch was reportedly in regular contact with Trump, and CNN’s Brian Stelter has suggested the impetus for the offer was that Murdoch “wanted to scoop up CNN and neuter it to curry favor with the president.”
GOP leaders have picked up where Trump left off, browbeating large corporations to get them to fall in line with the right’s political interests. Congressional Republicans have already threatened retribution against companies that opposed Georgia’s voter suppression law and cooperated with the congressional investigation into the January 6 insurrection. And on the same day House Republicans sent their letter to Twitter’s board, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law retaliating against Disney for its criticism of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” education law.
Just as they did under Trump, these efforts by Republicans use legitimate tools for illegitimate ends. Disney had enjoyed the benefits of Disney World residing in the Reedy Creek Improvement District, an area in which the company effectively functioned as the local government, which would be dissolved under the bill DeSantis signed. Florida’s government established that district, and DeSantis and the Republican-controlled legislature had the power to eliminate it. But they did so because, as DeSantis explicitly stated, the company articulated “woke” opinions and “tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda.” And they held open the possibility that if Disney reversed itself, it could retain its status.
Right-wing media figures are praising the move by DeSantis and calling for similar retribution against other “woke” companies, specifically citing the prospect of chilling speech for political ends.
Republicans are already adopting Trump’s strong-arm tactics against “woke capital,” effectively incorporating his brand of corrupt authoritarianism across the party. And they are laying the groundwork to go further in prosecuting their culture war grievances if the GOP regains control of the federal government, using the fig leaf of regulatory legitimacy to cudgel any institution that steps out of line.