When Disney responded to internal dissent by publicly condemning Florida’s passage of its discriminatory Parental Rights in Education law, the company ran into a right-wing media buzzsaw following a familiar strategy.
Here’s how their approach works. The right-wing propagandists first aggressively smear an existing institution — in this case, Disney — as excessively liberal in order to drive conservatives away from it. That incentivizes the institution to move to the right to preserve its customer base and prevent political blowback from Republican politicians. The right-wingers pair their demagogic critique with the creation of new, explicitly ideological counter-institutions to capture the business — and money — of the wayward conservative customers.
The right has used the same set of tactics against a variety of institutions and companies, notably the press and social media platforms. As I’ve written before about this right-wing “con culture”:
Outlets and personalities use ideological, often paranoid, political coverage to build connections with their audiences. They convince those audience members that mainstream information sources that present contradictory narratives can’t be trusted. And then they bilk those marks for all they are worth.
Now, this right-wing apparatus has come for Disney. All this week, right-wing media outlets have overwhelmingly focused on the company as they try to extract a price for its call for the repeal of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. While conservatives dishonestly portray the law as enacting a narrow ban on teaching “sex-stuff” in kindergarten through third grade, its deliberately vague language could implicate a wide array of discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity across grades. Groups like the Trevor Project have criticized the bill for its potential to silence teachers and have a chilling effect on LGBTQ youth.
Fox mentioned “Disney” more than 350 times and in over 3 hours of coverage this week. Its commentators claimed the company is “grooming” and “sexualizing children” in order to push a “progressive LGBT agenda.” Neither the bigoted anti-LGBTQ animosity nor the strategy was particularly subtle:
The second shoe dropped Thursday when The Daily Wire, the right-wing digital, streaming, and podcasting empire fronted by Ben Shapiro, announced that it was investing $100 million over three years in animated and live-action children’s entertainment. The announcement had been moved up in response to Disney’s criticism of the “Don’t Say Gay” law, Daily Wire co-CEO Jeremy Boreing told an employee town hall.
“Americans are tired of giving their money to woke corporations who hate them,” Boreing explained. “They’re tired of giving their money to woke media companies who want to indoctrinate their children with radical race and gender theory.”
Two things stand out about this move.
First, when right-wing media figures like Shapiro denounce Disney, they are building a potential audience of conservatives who will instead give their money to Shapiro’s employer. That creates an obvious incentive for those commentators to blow every perceived difference with Disney wildly out of proportion for profit.
Second, while the critique of Disney has little to do with its content, the new alternative is explicitly right-wing. Boreing isn’t saying there’s something wrong with features like Encanto or Moana; he’s trying to harness resentment over the company’s public statements to garner an audience for his competing product. The Daily Wire’s programming for children, however, promises deliberate right-wing messages.
Conservatives frequently deploy this strategy of tearing down a nominally nonpartisan institution as excessively liberal while offering up an explicitly right-wing alternative.
Republican activists, politicians, and conservative media outlets spent decades telling conservatives that the mainstream press is liberal and deceitful, with a particular inflection point during the civil rights era, when journalists were condemned for producing critical reporting about segregation. GOP political operative Roger Ailes took advantage of the opportunity created by the ensuing conservative distrust of the mainstream press when he co-founded Fox News and explicitly branded it as a “balance” to other, presumably leftist, outlets.
Fox and its political and media allies relentlessly highlight supposed excesses of the mainstream press. This is in part an often-successful effort to “work the refs,” criticizing those outlets in order to secure from them more favorable coverage of Republican and right-wing figures and causes. But it is also a business strategy: By presenting other media outlets as corrupt and liberal, explicitly right-wing outlets like Fox help secure a hammerlock on right-wing audiences. Indeed, the greatest threat to Fox’s market share comes from right-wing competitors who try to run the same strategy against it.
The right ran the same play against social media platforms. Right-wing commentators at Fox and elsewhere and Republican politicians baselessly claimed that Facebook and other platforms were biased against conservatives. By turning that lie into a universally held belief on the right, they were able to pressure those companies to take favorable actions. The Daily Wire in particular took advantage of that ref-working to get special dispensation to break Facebook’s rules and become much more influential than it otherwise would have been.
Meanwhile, right-wing entrepreneurs spun up explicitly right-wing alternatives to the major social media platforms, albeit with varying degrees of success. Twitter analogues like Trump’s Truth Social, Trump aide Jason Miller’s Gettr, and white nationalist hangout Gab have been failures to varying degrees. Rumble, a video-sharing platform that functions as a right-wing alternative to YouTube, has been much more successful, thanks in part to financing from the billionaire Peter Thiel and support from right-wing commentators like Fox’s Dan Bongino.
Right-wing media are creating a new type of consumer who builds their lifestyle around “lib-owning” by driving their audiences away from legacy brands and toward explicitly right-wing ones. These “lifestyle conservatives” favor Fox News over CNN and Rumble over YouTube. They buy right-wing razors and right-wing children’s books. Instead of listening to medical experts and taking COVID-19 vaccines, they take ivermectin; instead of making more traditional investments, they buy gold.
It’s all a con designed to channel culture war issues into Republican votes so the party can redistribute wealth upward, while also funneling cash to the party’s propagandists. And now that con is coming for Disney.