The Unbearable Lightness of Nikki Haley

The Unbearable Lightness of Nikki Haley

We know we’re a little late to this story, but we were traveling.  More notably, there’s a serious point here that needs making but that has largely been ignored.

The other day, current presidential candidate (and former Governor of South Carolina and Ambassador to the United Nations) Nikki Haley thought she’d be clever and, instead, probably destroyed whatever minimal chance she had of winning the Republican nomination.  Taking a swipe at Florida Governor (and presumed presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis, Haley tweeted:

Hey @Disney, my home state will happily accept your 70,000+ jobs if you want to leave Florida.

We’ve got great weather, great people, and it’s always a great day in South Carolina!

SC’s not woke, but we’re not sanctimonious about it either.

Obviously, this is almost as cringeworthy as it is tone-deaf.  With the exception of Donald Trump – who is blinded by his obsession with DeSantis – there’s not a Republican in the country who would choose sides with Disney over DeSantis.  If she wanted to remind voters and media that she’s still alive and still running for president, she did so.  If she wanted to convince anyone to send her money or vote for her, she likely did the opposite.  G’bye, Candidate Haley, we hardly knew ya.

The catch here is that Haley’s tweet – and the bizarre sentiment it represents – is not just awkward and politically stupid, it is also shockingly and infuriatingly ignorant.

We’re not sure why we have to explain this to a legitimate (if unlikely) Republican presidential hopeful in 2023, but, apparently, we do: Disney is easily one of the most aggressively political and politicized corporations in the country.  Bob Iger is easily one of the most aggressively political and politicized CEOs in the country.  Disney and Iger care less about their shareholders than they do their personal political predilections.  They care less about their customers and the vast majority of their employees (two pretty significant “stakeholders,” by the way) than they do about a very vocal minority of employees and executives who are under the misimpression that the corporation exists to meet their emotional needs.  One might even go so far as to say that Disney is the embodiment of the phenomenon known as “woke capital.”  One might also note that this is precisely why its iconic Mickey Mouse ears feature so prominently in the picture below.  Additionally, the history of Iger’s and Disney’s political meddling long predates Ron DeSantis’s governorship, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Florida.

In the ENTIRE CHAPTER on Disney in the book for which the above picture constitutes the cover art (the paperback edition of which is available now!), yours truly put it this way:

For years, Disney has been among the most liked and most respected name brands in American business. When it comes to brand image or “corporate social responsibility” measures, Disney is almost always among the top five or six companies in the world. Disney sells an image—“the Happiest Place on Earth,” “Find your happily ever after,” etc.—that evokes what is best about the country, about its history, and the idea that anything can happen “when you wish upon a star.” Disney’s image is about as wholesome and wonderful and quaintly dutiful as it gets.

Or at least it is on the surface….

The first signs of trouble at the House of Mouse emerged in late 2015, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was set to open in China, and observ­ers noticed something strange about the movie posters created specifically for the Chinese market: John Boyega—who is African American—was featured prominently on the regular poster but was minimized on the Chinese version. And all the other minority actors were removed from the Chinese poster altogether.2 The following year, Disney released Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and the character the Ancient One, who, in the comic book, is a Tibetan monk, was played by British actress Tilda Swinton. When asked about the discrepancy between the comic and the movie, screenwriter C. Robert Cargill said, “He originates from Tibet. So if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls—t and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”

While he was kowtowing to China on Tibet and minorities, Iger was getting political at home—in Georgia first and then in North Carolina. In early 2016, the Georgia legislature passed a “religious liberty” bill that was controversial and raised the hackles of various gay rights advocacy groups. Disney and Iger led the charge to block the bill by threaten­ing to boycott the state if it was enacted. And why should Georgia care what Disney thinks? Georgia just happens to be home to the largest film production industry in the United States, largely because of incredibly generous tax breaks offered by the state to film companies, beginning in 2002 and strengthened in 2008. Filmmaking has helped make Georgia one of the economic powerhouses of the New South, and Disney is one of its best customers. But Iger and Disney didn’t like what the elected representatives of the people of Georgia believed, so they stomped their mouse-shaped feet and demanded satisfaction. They received that sat­isfaction just a few weeks later, when Georgia’s governor, Republican Nathan Deal, announced that he would veto the bill to spare his state the economic consequences of the boycott.

Deal’s position was precarious, and his acquiescence was, therefore, understandable. In so doing, however, he emboldened the likes of Disney to threaten those who disagreed with them politically with economic ruin. Later that same year, Iger and Disney jumped into the political fray once more, signing on to the threatened boycott of North Carolina over its controversial bathroom bill, known as HB2. And while Disney and the rest didn’t “win” that battle in the sense that they forced state legislators not to pass or to repeal the bill, they did ensure that the people of North Carolina lost big time, creating considerable economic hardship for the state, just as promised….

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping grew tired of being told that he looks like Winnie the Pooh and had the character banned from social media in China. More damagingly, China banned the Disney film Christopher Robin, which reimagined Pooh and company interacting with live-action actors. Iger didn’t bat an eyelash.

Ambassador Haley notes specifically that Disney should bring its “70,000+ jobs” to South Carolina.  Jobs are good, right?  They bring wages, which bring taxes, and amount to “economic development.”  And who could object to economic development?

Well…again, this is evidence of Haley’s staggering ignorance.  You see, Bob Iger may be the “nicest CEO in Hollywood,” but that is, apparently, a low bar.  Bob Iger doesn’t think about jobs as “economic development.”  And he certainly doesn’t think about them as the mechanisms by which the little people feed themselves, pay their rent and mortgages, and put shoes on their kids’ feet.  He doesn’t think about the people who work those jobs at all.  They are…how shall say?…“expendable,” as the little people often are.  Their jobs, in turn, are mere leverage.  Again, from the book:

In 2019, after Iger had finally put to bed the rumors that he would run for the Democratic presidential nomination and the chance to take on Donald Trump, he and Disney nevertheless saw another opportunity to flex their political muscle at home. The elected representatives of the people of Georgia again grew a little too big for their britches and again threatened to enact a law Bob Iger did not like, this time one that banned abortions after six weeks, which is when a fetal heartbeat can generally be heard. Iger again joined the planned boycott of Georgia, saying that he didn’t think it would be “practical” for Disney to continue to shoot in Georgia if the state enacted the bill. Disney had made the highest-grossing film of 2019—Avengers: Endgame—and the two highest-grossing films of 2018—Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther—in Georgia, so Iger’s threats were not idle. He promised serious economic consequences for the people of Georgia, and at least mild economic consequences for Disney shareholders, if the people of Georgia defied his demands. Nevertheless, the bill was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Brian Kemp….

There is some profound irony here, given that Mr. Iger does not seem to have any problems doing business in France, the home of Disneyland Paris, despite the fact that France forbids abortions after twelve weeks. A twelve-week ban in the United States—i.e., a ban after the first trimester—would, in practice and in politics, be virtually the same as the Georgia law. And yet that didn’t stop Bob Iger from embarking on a $2.5 billion renovation and expansion of his Paris theme park in early 2018.  

To be blunt, Bob Iger is not the nice guy he portrays himself to be.  Indeed, we’re inclined use another, coarser term to describe him, but we’ll refrain because we have more respect for any youngsters who might accidentally stumble into reading this piece than Iger and Disney do.

And we won’t use coarse terms to describe Ambassador Haley either, although the terms we will use are probably more damning: hack, useful idiot, former presidential contender.

We just spent four days at a conference about ESG and were, at times, quite heartened by the progress that has been made on the subject in just the last two years.  Our optimism was tempered, however, by Nikki Haley, whose declaration of war on Ron DeSantis was also a declaration of war on reality.

If a former governor, former ambassador to the UN, and current presidential candidate can be so ignorant of something so serious and pervasive as this, then we know we have a LOT more work to do.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.