/ 20 January 2017

​Trump can be tripped by sanctions

Then and now: Demonstrators outside the Scottish Parliament in 2012 after Donald Trump spoke of his concerns over a proposed wind farm. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Then and now: Demonstrators outside the Scottish Parliament in 2012 after Donald Trump spoke of his concerns over a proposed wind farm. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The forces arrayed against Donald Trump’s presidency and neo-fascist movement range from the CIA to oppressed minorities, and will soon encompass the whole world once his climate change threats are carried out.

From above, conflicts will continue with moderate Republicans, Democratic Party elites, so-called Deep State opponents, including neoconservative factions of the military, exporting companies concerned about protectionism and deficit hawks worried about excess spending on filthy Keynesian infrastructure.

But it’s likely that elite opposition will fade within weeks.

What about resistance from below? Learning explicitly from apartheid’s defeat, it makes sense to prepare a global boycott divestment sanctions (BDS) strategy to use against Trump, his leading cronies and United States corporations more generally.

For human rights victims in the US, mutual aid commitments such as the new United Resistance, linking dozens of campaigning groups, and a sanctuary movement (hated by the far right) offer close-to-home “social self-defence”, as activist Jeremy Brecher remarks in his survey of the many anti-Trump struggles.

The most serious threat to humanity and the environment posed by Trump, aside from the return of the Pentagon’s first-strike nuclear fantasies, is the coming spike in US greenhouse gas emissions.

But climate denialism is the new government’s “default position”, says Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Preibus.

According to Trump’s 100-day plan, he will build fossil-fuel pipelines, airports, roads and bridges; cancel international obligations, for example, the United Nations climate treaty and payment obligations to the Green Climate Fund; retract shale-gas restrictions and the ban on the Keystone oil pipeline; destroy the Environmental Protection Agency, and attempt to “save the coal industry”.

After that, expect privatisation of public land, including Native American reservations, in search of more oil.

Trump’s choices for the main climate-related Cabinet positions left no room for doubt: Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, Scott Pruitt as the EPA director, Rick Perry as the secretary of energy and Ryan Zinke as the secretary of the interior.

Tillerson, as an ExxonMobil leader, was a major contributor

to climate policy inertia for several decades.

More recently his contract for a massive $500-billion Siberian oil drill earned him the Russian Order of Friendship from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

A year later, the deal was postponed because of sanctions that followed Putin’s invasion of the Crimea.

A climate BDS

The conceptual tools needed to BDS Trump have been around for years. Already in 2006, Nobel economic prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz argued, “unless producers in America face the full cost of their emissions, Europe, Japan and all the other countries of the world should impose trade sanctions against the United States”.

Climate justice advocate Naomi Klein said in response to Trump’s election: “We need to start demanding economic sanctions in the face of this treaty-shedding lawlessness.”

Representing French business, the conservative former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, threatened: “I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1% to 3% for all products coming from the US if the US doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies.”

In a front-page story, the New York Times quoted a leading Mexican official at the UN climate summit in Marrakesh as saying: “A carbon tariff against the US is an option for us.” It was echoed by a Canadian official.

Micro-sanctions are already stinging Trump, who last week defended clothing retailer LL Bean against the #grabyourwallet boycott of 75 Trump-related firms. His ego may be bruised by singer Cher’s “turn him off” strategy to deny Trump a television audience for his inauguration and the fact that most A-list entertainers won’t perform for him.

Setting aside the personal pin-pricks with which journalists and politicians have drawn blood, what kinds of activist and legal attacks on Trump’s business have really tripped him up?

Decades of extreme real estate corruption, property gambles, debt defaults and fully fledged bankruptcies, nonpayment of suppliers and tax chiselling have reportedly resulted in more than 4 000 lawsuits. And the new president refuses to divest himself of any of his holdings.

Grievances against Trump family-firm holdings are legion but political attacks on Trump-associated companies are even more important.

In February last year, for example, the e-activist network Color of Change challenged one of the sponsors of last year’s Republican Party convention: “How can Coca-Cola, a company that heavily markets to and profits from black people, fund a platform for a presidential nominee that is being bolstered into office by former Grand Wizard David Duke, the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] and other white supremacists?” The petition was signed by 100 000 people.

Within three weeks, Coca-Cola agreed to withhold $600 000 it had earlier earmarked to help to pay for the convention.

Another example is the Sleeping Giants Twitter network of several thousand activists, who, since last November, discovered that more than 1 000 major firms and nonprofit institutions were advertising (most without being aware of it) on the Trumpist Breitbart.com white nationalist website.

They confronted these firms by sending them a screenshot and a request to defund the sites, which soon led to 400 firms withdrawing their adverts.

Mega-corporations are more difficult targets, reflecting the Dow Jones stock market index’s 9% increase after November 8, led by banking, oil and military firms. Trump’s Cabinet and top officials come from Goldman Sachs bank, ExxonMobil oil, Koch Industries oil, Lockheed Martin military, Pfizer drugs, General Dynamics military, Wells Fargo bank, Amway beauty, Hardees food and Breitbart media.

If some of these firms are the most likely targets of a people’s smart-sanctions strategy, what lessons may be learned from other BDS campaigns?

Other boycott lessons

Current BDS-from-below targets include Israel because of legal and human rights violations in Palestine, and the world fossil fuel industry, which faces an “unburnable carbon” financial crisis known as “stranded assets”.

In the latter case, investment managers’ fiduciary responsibility is not to invest in firms that falsely state the value of their coal, oil and gas assets. The Dakota Access Pipe Line battle, partially won by Native American mass action last December, has a parallel divestment fight underway against the project’s bankers.

In South Africa, the crime against humanity known as apartheid was a form of fascism in which white-run corporations and the racist, patriarchal and ecologically destructive political elite in white Afrikaner society exercised power, refusing democratic demands for “one person, one vote in a unitary state”.

BDS was one part of the resistance. According to Ronnie Kasrils, a leader of the underground movement, “BDS made apartheid’s beneficiaries feel the pinch in their pocket and their polecat status”.

Those sanctions worked in part because they were initially conceptualised by Albert Luthuli in 1959:

“The economic boycott of South Africa will entail undoubted hardship for Africans. We do not doubt that. But, if it is a method which shortens the day of bloodshed, the suffering to us will be a price we are willing to pay.”

The sanctions were developed through alliances by South African leaders such as Luthuli and Nelson Mandela with British supporters and the US civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King.

By 1962, the first of many UN resolutions called for sanctions against apartheid.

In 1985, the BDS SA strategic wedge was driven directly between white Johannesburg capitalists and the racist Pretoria regime. Just as mid-1980s internal protest surged, it was the foreign debt crisis caused in part by BDS that finally broke the capital-state alliance and compelled the nine-year transition to democracy.

Breaking Trump’s ties to big businessis a similar political project. Certainly one way to test how powerful Trumpism may become is to begin tripping him up where he is most visibly vulnerable — climate change. Sarkozy’s (probably idle) threat notwithstanding, the world can’t count on many (if any) states to begin this. So, as in the South African case, it will be up to grassroots activists fighting hardest from within to make the call: BDS USA.

Patrick Bond is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand