Stand with Standing Rock

Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions

Patrick Bond, CounterPunch, Feb 16 2017 - 19:00

The forces arrayed against Donald Trump’s presidency and neo-fascist movement range from the Central Intelligence Agency 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. Then what about resistance from below? Learning explicitly from apartheid’s defeat, it makes sense to prepare a global Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) strategy against Trump, his leading cronies and United States corporations more generally.

For human rights victims in the US, mutual aid commitments like 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 myriad anti-Trump struggles.

When it comes to raising the costs of Trump’s noxious politics internationally and preventing corporations from full cohesion to his program, the US oppressed still must take the lead. Evidence of this is already emerging, with Trump boycotts seeking to delegitimise his political agenda and companies that support it. Internationally, we can predict that when Rex Tillerson takes trips or Trump attends the Hamburg G20 in July, protesters will be out.

The most serious threat to humanity and environment, aside from the return of first-strike nuclear fantasies, is climate change denialism and new spikes in US greenhouse gas emissions from deregulated fossil fuels and filthy infrastructure. This article briefly

  • reviews Trump’s threats to the climate;
  • considers sanctions and how they might work against Trump and US megacorporations;
  • reminds of the recent history of climate sanctions and carbon-tax advocacy;
  • lists some Trump-related corporations to potentially target; and
  • concludes with a hopeful precedent – anti-apartheid sanctions that allowed black South Africans and their allies to wedge global and local capital away from a fascist state.

Climate chaos reignited

First, what will it take to solve the climate crisis? There are technicist strategies to lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy, transport, agriculture and forestry, urbanisation, production, consumption and disposal. But the overwhelming change required will be to overcome what has been termed “inertia by political and social will.” 

As climate change evidence gathers pace, so has awareness. By last November, the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication poll of US registered voters found that 78% supported taxing or regulating emissions, and 69% agreed this should happen in an international agreement.

But last November in another poll, Trump was elected president. In three states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – the margin required to reverse the result was a total of just 55,000 votes. Trump won the electoral college but lost the national popular vote by nearly three million votes. Supported by only 45 percent of those who voted, his popularity rating of just 37 percent a week before taking office gave Trump no domestic mandate for climate change denialism. Yet this is the new government’s ‘default position,’ says Trump’s chief of staff Reince Preibus.

The areas in which we can anticipate Trump’s climate policies to quickly affect the world, according to his 100-day plan, are resurgent climate denialism; filthy, carbon-intensive infrastructure construction (fossil-fuel pipelines, airports, roads and bridges); cancellation of international obligations (e.g. withdrawing from the United Nations climate treaty and payment obligations to the Green Climate Fund); retraction of shale gas restrictions and the Keystone pipeline ban; destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and a (futile) attempt to “save the coal industry.” After that, expect privatization of public land including Native reservations, in search of more oil.

His choices for the main climate-related Cabinet positions left no room for doubt: Tillerson as Secretary of State, Scott Pruitt as EPA Director, Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy and Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior.

Tillerson was not only a major contributor to climate policy inertia over several decades as an ExxonMobil leader. More recently his contract for a massive $500 billion Siberian oil drill earned him the Russian ‘Order of Friendship’ from Vladimir Putin in 2013. A year later, the deal was postponed due to sanctions that followed Putin’s 2014 invasion of the Crimea in the wake of the US-financed ($5 billion) overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader. Even without Tillerson at the helm, ExxonMobil is anticipated to remain a very strong target for environmental boycotters.

But beyond specific firms, the challenge will be to address Trumpism’s malevolent power, all over the world. As much as any issue area, climate change offers that opportunity because the products of corporations in the US – more than in any other country – are tainted by the world’s highest historic emissions of greenhouse gases.

Before assessing Trump’s climate destruction, consider a thought experiment: had Hillary Clinton been elected president and under her rule had US corporations continued to pollute without any accountability or penalty (one of several fatal flaws in the Paris Agreement, a deal which climate scientist James Hansen defined as ‘bullshit!’) – then would the world have been in a position to react? The election’s silver lining may be more effective activism.

Simply put, Trump’s election gives the world impetus to belatedly develop a BDS strategy in a way that activists should have been doing since at least 1992, when President George HW Bush told the Rio Earth Summit “The American way of life is not up for negotiations.”

The climate case for BDS 

Conceptual tools needed to boycott US exports on grounds of climate change have been around for years. Already in 2006, Nobel economic prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz argued, “unless the US goes along with the rest of the world, unless producers in America face the full cost of their emissions, Europe, Japan and all the countries of the world should impose trade sanctions against the US.” A technical policy term for such sanctions emerged: “border adjustment taxes” or for short, border measures which avoid World Trade Organisation anti-protectionist penalties (i.e., such taxes are not a “disguised trade restriction”).

By 2009, US President Barack Obama promoted carbon trading strategies within his ultimately-unsuccessful pro-market legislative strategy (to “privatize the air” by letting the rich pay to pollute), in order that big corporations would agree to emissions caps. Establishment economists like the Peterson Institute’s Gary Hufbauer and Jisun Kim observed that in such a context, US companies “paying to pollute” would need additional protection from outside competitors: “border measures seem all but certain for political reasons… many US climate bills introduced in the Congress have included border measures: they limit imports from countries that do not have comparable climate policies.”

Due to Republican Party climate denialism, the ‘cap-and-trade’ legislation failed in 2009-10, and although Obama gained allies for a new non-binding, market-friendly agreement at the Copenhagen UN summit in 2009, it was only in 2015 that the UN Paris Climate Agreement finally emerged as the first all-in deal.

But when last November, Trump’s victory squelched any prospect of Paris being implemented by his government – hence confirming the impossibility of the goal of lowering the temperature increase above pre-industrial times to 1.5 Centigrade degrees, all hope evaporated for the subsequent UN negotiations that had just begun in Marrakesh, Morocco. Widener Law School climate specialist Donald Brown reported: “I heard participants proclaim defiantly that they were going to ‘Trump Proof’ the world. They claimed they were going to go ahead with or without the United States. Several claimed that if the US pulled out of the Paris deal, they would pursue economic sanctions against the US.”

Climate justice advocate Naomi Klein reacted: “We need to start demanding economic sanctions in the face of this treaty-shedding lawlessness.” Representing French business, conservative ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy threatened, “I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3 percent, 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 in Marrakesh: “A carbon tariff against the US is an option for us. We will apply any kind of policy necessary to defend the quality of life for our people, to protect our environment and to protect our industries,” a point echoed by a Canadian official.

Can Trump be badgered by corporate campaigns?

“Honey badger don’t give a shit!,” according to a slogan that has motivated Breitbart.com’s reckless ‘journalists’ since the time of the late maniacal founder Andrew Breitbart. Its subsequent leader Steve Bannon – now Trump senior political advisor – appears to carry that gonzo style directly into the White House. (The phrase comes from a youtube video about a ‘crazy nastyass’ African animal unnerved by danger.)

Sometimes a thin-skinned Trump does indeed give a shit, most recently defending 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 an Inauguration Day tv audience. Not only will scores of Democratic Party members of Congress boycott the swearing in on Friday, most A-list entertainers won’t perform for Trump.

Setting aside the myriad personal pin-pricks from which journalists and politicians have drawn blood, what kinds of activist and legal attacks on Trump’s business have truly tripped him up and reversed his course? Decades worth of extreme real estate corruption, property gambles, debt defaults and full-fledged bankruptcies, refusals to pay suppliers and tax chiselling have reportedly attracted more than 4000 lawsuits.

More rarely, however, there are popular victories that reveal Trump’s weaknesses in political battle. Within the past year, former students at Trump University who claimed their $35,000 annual education was fraudulent won an out of court settlement of $25 million. A month later, Trump backed down from trade union disputes against his Los Vegas hotel. Also in 2016 he was forced to drop out of a Brazilian construction branding deal due to local corruption, and in Ireland he also acknowledged defeat when a snail’s survival compelled local environmental regulators to halt his wall-building (against sea level rise) at a golf course. Trump’s giant ego, public relations gaffes and inevitable allegations of business misconduct draw his firms towards such chaos like a moth to a flame.

Trump company targets will continue to be relevant, especially because the new president refuses to divest any of his holdings, thus ensuring coming years of activist protests and court hearings over conflicts of interest. What other corporate targets are logical for consumers and sympathetic states worldwide, are vulnerable to brand damage associated with BDS strategy, and will most adversely affect Trump and his cronies?

Grievances against Trump family-firm holdings are legion, but political attacks on Trump-associated companies are even more important. In February 2016, for example, the e-activist network Color of Change directed its Trump campaigning against one of the world’s largest companies because of its sponsorship 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, and other white supremacists?”

The petition was signed by 100,000. Within three weeks, Coca-Cola had agreed to withhold $600,000 it had earlier earmarked to help pay for the Cleveland convention.

Another example was the ‘Sleeping Giants’ Twitter network of several thousand activists which since last November discovered that more than 1000 major firms and non-profit institutions were advertising (most without being aware) on the breitbart.com white nationalist website. Their attempts to confront these firms by sending a screenshot were remarkably successful, and led to 400 withdrawing the adverts.

But there are, in contrast, mega-corporations anxious to pick up vast new contracts with the US government, reflecting the 9 percent increase in the Dow Jones stock market index after November 8, led by banking, oil and military firms. Trump’s cabinet and top officials are 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.

Precedents against not a person (Trump) but a system (Trumpism)

How far have dominant US politics slid to the far right? Trump only received 25.3 percent of the eligible vote, yet there can be no mistaking how Washington’s state-corporate power now fuses multiple reactionary political, socio-cultural and economic forces into a US version of neo-fascism.

To be sure, conflicts will continue rising between Trumpism and moderate Republicanism, the neo-liberals and liberal Democratic elites, the so-called Deep State opponents (especially in the Central Intelligence Agency) and neoconservative factions of the military, and increasingly in 2017, deficit hawks. Probably though, these won’t reach break point. If they do, a Trumpism-without-Trump may well be the result. If Trump is removed from the presidency by a faction of the Deep State or a bloc representing Koch interests, they will simply have concluded that Michael Pence would far better serve their interests.

Could a smart-sanctions campaign against the corporations undergirding Trumpism (not just Trump) be effective? If some of these firms – e.g. Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Lockheed Martin, Pfizer – are the most likely targets of a people’s smart-sanctions strategy, there are some lessons to be learned from prior BDS campaigns.

Current BDS-from-below targets include Israel due to its 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 which investment managers’ fiduciary responsibility is to not invest in firms which falsely state the value of their coal, oil and gas assets. The Dakota Access Pipe Line battle partially won by mass action last December also has a parallel divestment fight underway against the pipeline’s bankers.

In both cases, the stigmatization strategy has worked to some extent, and often, the disinvestment tactic has been financially painful to the target.

Making the process as democratic as possible is vital. In 2006, 170 Palestinian civil society groups initiated BDS, insisting on three unifying demands: the retraction of illegal Israeli settlements (a demand won in the Gaza Strip) and the end of the West Bank Occupation and Gaza siege; cessation of racially-discriminatory policies towards the million and a half Palestinians living within Israel; and a recognition of Palestinians’ right to return to residences dating to the 1948 ethnic cleansing when the Israeli state was established.

One result has been an attempt by Zionists – including in powerful US state agencies – to stigmatize those who advocate BDS (e.g. as ‘anti-Semitic’), an indication of how great a threat BDS may become to an unjust order known by its critics as ‘Israeli apartheid.’

Against this, says BDS-Israel co-founder Omar Barghouti, “Boycott remains the most morally sound, non-violent form of struggle that can rid the oppressor of his oppression, thereby allowing true coexistence, equality, justice and sustainable peace to prevail. South Africa attests to the potency and potential of this type of civil resistance.”

In South Africa, the crime against humanity known as apartheid was a form of fascism in which state power, corporate profitability and the racist, patriarchal and ecologically destructive cultural elite within white society exercised power, refusing the masses’ 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 and from 2004-08 the South African Minister of Intelligence – “BDS made apartheid’s beneficiaries feel the pinch in their pocket and their polecat status whether in the diplomatic arena, on the sporting fields, at academic or business conventions, in the world of theatre and the arts, in the area of commerce and trade and so on. Arms sanctions weakened the efficiency of the SA Defence Force; disinvestment by trade unions and churches affected the economy as did the termination of banking ties by the likes of Chase Manhattan and Barclays banks; boycott of products from fruit to wine saw a downturn in trade; the disruption of sports events was a huge psychological blow; dockworkers refusing to handle ship’s cargoes disrupted trade links.”

Internally, protests in townships and trade unions catalyzed global support for intensified financial sanctions in 1985. They peaked when at the Durban City Hall on August 15 that year, apartheid boss PW Botha addressedhis National Party and an internationally televised audience of 200 million with his belligerent “Rubicon Speech.” He refused to budget on demands to end apartheid.

Realizing the Trumpian character of Botha, Pretoria’s frightened international creditors – subject to intense activist pressure – began calling in loans early. Facing a run on the SA Reserve Bank’s hard currency, Botha defaulted on $13 billion of debt payments coming due, shut the stock market and imposed exchange controls. Within days, leading English-speaking businessmen Gavin Relly, Zac de Beer and Tony Bloom began dismantlingtheir decades-old de facto alliance with the Pretoria regime, met African National Congress (ANC) leaders in Lusaka, and helped engineer a transition that would free South Africa of racial (albeit not class) apartheid less than nine years later.

Botha was gone by 1989 but civil society ratcheted up anti-apartheid BDS even when his successor FW De Klerk offered reforms in February 1990, such as freeing Nelson Mandela and unbanning political parties. Proposed international bank loans to Pretoria for ostensibly ‘developmental’ purposes were rejected by activists, and threats were made: a future ANC government would default. It was only by fusing bottom-up pressure with top-down international delegitimization of white rule that the final barriers were cleared for the first free vote, in April 1994.

South Africa sanctions worked in part because they were initially conceptualized 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.” They developed through alliances of South African leaders like Luthuli and Mandela, with British supporters and US civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King. By 1962, the first of many UN resolutions called for sanctions against apartheid.

The ANC-influenced Congress of South African Trade Unions endorsed BDS as “an essential and effective formof pressure” even though in the short term it would cost them jobs. The main opposition to BDS from black South Africans was from Bantustan collaborators, who promoted their own much narrower reform strategy for multinational corporations active in South Africa (the “Sullivan Principles” from which even Leon Sulllivan retreated in 1987 due to Botha’s intransigence).

The main point to reflect on is the strategic wedge driven between white (‘english-speaking’) Johannesburg capitalists and racist (‘Afrikaner’) Pretoria regime. As internal protest surged, it was the 1985 foreign debt crisis caused in part by BDS which broke the capital-state alliance and compelled South Africa’s nine-year transition to democracy.

With Trumpism such a logical target of BDS-USA, international solidarity to weaken that power requires a boycott of both high-profile state functionaries and key corporations in order to attack the legitimacy of profits made within a neo-fascist, climate-denialist USA. As Public Citizen’s Rob Weissman warns, the US faces “a government literally of the Exxons, by the Goldman Sachses and for the Kochs.” Several dozen leading US activist groups have offered much-needed mutual solidarity as ‘United Resistance,’ which perhaps will soon add an international component to its armory.

Trump and his cronies are rapidly taking power in Washington, and in doing so they are currently battling Washington’s ‘Deep State’ over his pro-Russian perspective, as well as all Democratic elites and many from the Republican Party. He or at least the Koch/Cheney faction of Trumpism will likely win. At that point, when their threats to the climate and US oppressed people’s human rights become undeniable, can they then be challenged by the US and world progressive movements?

Certainly one way to test how powerful Trumpism may become, is to tackle it where its Achilles Heel stands out most – climate change – and with a well-tested strategy and tactics: BDS USA.

Patrick Bond is professor of political economy at Wits University in Johannesburg. A version of this article first appeared at The Conversation.