Ron DeSantis' Quiet Relationship with Amazon
“What I can say on behalf of Florida to companies like Amazon: We welcome you to come to Florida,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in 2019. He has since clammed up.
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For the last five years, the Republican Party has been in a tense internal debate over its relationship with corporate America. With the Republicans about to take over part of Congress, and a coming debate over their Presidential nominee, this issue could become explosive.
So that’s what I’m writing about today. How real is the anger at big business on the right? And how are conservative politicians wielding this anti-corporate rhetoric? To answer that question, I’m looking at possible Trump challenger Ron DeSantis and his quiet relationship with Amazon, and more broadly, corporate America.
Too Woke to Fail
One of the constant themes of this newsletter has been the conflict on the conservative side of the aisle over corporate power. The emergence of a genuine anti-monopoly faction on the right has been gradual, but it exists for a simple reason: Republican voters themselves have turned hostile to large corporations.
Despite skepticism many on the left have about this phenomenon, the anti-corporate sentiment isn’t fake, and it is having an impact on parts of the Republican Party in D.C. For instance, a little over a month ago, 39 Republican House members, led by conservative House member Ken Buck and encouraged by Senators Tom Cotton, Chuck Grassley, and Mike Lee, as well as the the Heritage Foundation, defied their leadership and voted to pass stronger antitrust law.
It’s more than just Congress. Last year, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, attacked the power of dominant firms, arguing monopoly power was upstream from censorship. Texas Republican Ken Paxton is leading a suit to break up Google, and Ohio Attorney General David Yost is seeking to have Google declared a public utility. I could go on, suffice to say there’s a lot of evidence that a faction on the right is disdainful that monopoly power exists.
And yet, the GOP has long been the party of big business, and that tradition hasn’t gone away. The new House Speaker will be tech-friendly Republican Kevin McCarthy, and the most powerful House conservative will be Google’s strongest ally in Congress, Jim Jordan, who will chair the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over antitrust. The tension on the right will get more intense next Congress, as the traditional big business-friendly establishment will lock horns with these new anti-monopolists.
This transition on the right is also going to play out in the GOP primary, which in some ways will begin overshadowing Congressional action fairly soon. In 2016, Trump attacked big business, offering a chaotic anti-establishment message. While corporate concentration increased under Trump, his administration was not without anti-monopoly successes. For instance, during Operation Warp Speed to create Covid vaccines, the White House handed out contracts to not just one but six pharmaceutical firms, which meant there was actually competition. Under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Antitrust Division brought the first monopolization suit in 20 years, against Google. And the Trump FTC also brought a monopolization suit against Facebook.
Trump’s anger at Big Tech, considering he was de-platformed, has only risen. Still, his policy track record was not consistent. Trump routinely attacked Jeff Bezos, but he absolutely loved when big tech stock prices soared. I do not know how Trump will run his 2024 campaign, but corporate power will likely again fit in.
The other key actor on the right is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is one of Trump’s most likely rivals for the Republican nomination. And DeSantis, following Trump, has a track record of putting big corporations on the defensive, most famously Disney. Unlike Trump, who bashed firms like Carrier for offshoring jobs, DeSantis’ disdain for corporations is much narrower, focusing only on conflicts over ‘woke' capital.
DeSantis is also cross-pressured on corporate power, perhaps even more so than Trump. Despite the anti-corporate rhetoric, 42 billionaires have given DeSantis money. According to one GOP operative quoted by Semafor, “the established donor class is behind DeSantis more than Trump.” DeSantis raised a record $190 million for his reelection campaign, and is set to harvest much much more. To understand why, it helps to look at how DeSantis acts when he’s not in the spotlight. In particular, it’s useful to examine his relationship with Amazon.
Amazon is hated on the right as a bulwark of progressivism. For instance, to pick a random example, GOP icon Tucker Carlson recently characterized the firm’s behavior as ‘modern-day book burning.’ And you can find an endless number of right-wing critiques. Conservatives distrust Amazon.
An association with the tech giant can be toxic for high-profile GOP politicians. So those who want a relationship with Amazon link themselves in more subtle ways that conservatives won’t notice. For instance, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, a potential 2024 Presidential nominee, quietly sent his wife to the opening of an Amazon Web Services skills center three weeks ago. He also appointed Jeffrey Palmore to be chairman of the Virginia Compensation Board, which sets pay for the various state officials overseeing Amazon’s financial concessions from the state. Amazon then immediately hired Palmore, giving the firm immense leverage over the government officials making decisions about how much Amazon profits. These pro-Amazon signals aren’t such a big deal for Youngkin, as he’s less a populist and more a wealthy plaid pants wearing finance dork. No one’s shocked by a Carlyle Group exec doing nice things for Amazon.
DeSantis is cut from different cloth. He is not wealthy, with a net worth of only $318,000, stunningly low for a politician. (And it actually dropped last year in office.) DeSantis has positioned himself as a socially conservative quasi-populist, a guy who won’t take guff from ‘woke’ corporate America. And yet, he’s done something similar to Youngkin, and through appointments and quiet signals, shown that he values a connection with Amazon.
But first, let’s start with his public image. Over the last year, DeSantis has become nationally known for attacking Disney over the corporation’s opposition to a Florida education law barring the teaching of certain forms of sex education and gender norms in schools. “You have companies, like a Disney, that are going to say, and criticize, parents’ rights,” DeSantis said in March. “They’re going to criticize the fact that we don’t want transgenderism in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.”
That wasn’t the end of his anti-corporate kick. DeSantis then prohibited cruise lines from verifying the vaccination status of customers, blocked state subsidies to the Tampa Bay Rays after they donated to a gun violence prevention program, and attacked corporate diversity training. “We will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces,” he said.
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