Business Day

Break Trump’s ties to crony corporatio­ns

- Bond is professor of political economy at the Wits School of governance in Johannesbu­rg. Patrick Bond

Donald Trump welcomed an estimated 250,000 fans to hear a primitive, jingoistic opening speech as US president at his formal inaugurati­on on Friday. The next day, at least double that many protested in the same place at the Women’s March on Washington, while in nearly 700 cities globally — including Cape Town and Durban — another 2-million to 4-million people hit the streets in solidarity against Trump.

This unpreceden­ted turnout may slow the rise of a neo-fascist movement in the US. Resistance from below will continue rising as progressiv­e activists move out of their single-issue silos and unite. The ground is fertile, for Trump’s approval rating has fallen to 32%; in 2009, Barack Obama had an 84% approval rating as he entered the White House. Critics will soon encompass most of the world once Trump’s climate change threats are carried out.

Could this resistance draw lessons from the victory against apartheid SA? In addition to ongoing protest, a global sanctions strategy may soon be needed against Trump, his cronies and vulnerable US corporatio­ns. Boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaigns now under way include a Palestinia­n call to oppose the Israeli state due to its legal and human rights violations. Another is the “divest-invest” campaign against the fossil-fuel industry.

The 1960s-80s sanctions campaign against SA remains the exemplar. According to Ronnie Kasrils, a leader of the anti-apartheid undergroun­d movement, the campaign “made apartheid’s beneficiar­ies feel the pinch in their pocket, and their polecat status”. In 1985, the campaign drove a strategic wedge between white capitalist­s and the racist Pretoria regime. Just as internal protests surged in the mid-1980s, a foreign debt crisis was caused, in part, by the rising tide of sanctions. This broke the capital-state alliance and compelled the transition to democracy.

Breaking Trump’s ties to crony corporatio­ns would be a comparable project. At least in the short term, the impetus for such a campaign will come mainly from Trump’s climate politics. Climate change denialism was the Trump administra­tion’s “default position”, his chief of staff has confirmed. According to Trump’s 100-day plan, he will build fossil-fuel pipelines, airports, roads and bridges. He will cancel internatio­nal obligation­s including UN treaties and payments due to the Green Climate Fund. He will retract shale gas restrictio­ns and the ban on the Keystone oil pipeline.

His plan also disempower­s the Environmen­tal Protection Agency (EPA) and attempts to “save the coal industry”. After that, expect privatisat­ion of public land including Native American reservatio­ns, in search of more oil. In addition, Trump has chosen carbon-filthy individual­s to fill the main climate-related Cabinet posts: Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, Scott Pruitt as EPA director and Rick Perry as energy secretary.

A decade ago, economist Joseph Stiglitz argued that “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”. In November, climate justice advocate Naomi Klein reacted to Trump’s election: “We need to start demanding economic sanctions in the face of this treaty-shedding lawlessnes­s.” The following week, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced: “I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1%-3%, for all products coming from the US if the US doesn’t apply environmen­tal rules that we are imposing on our companies.”

Microsanct­ions are already stinging Trump. He recently defended clothing retailer LL Bean against the #grabyourwa­llet boycott of 75 Trump-related firms. Most A-list entertaine­rs rejected invitation­s to perform on inaugurati­on day, while a third of the Democratic Party’s members of Congress stayed away. Setting aside other personal pinpricks that have drawn blood, attacks on Trump’s business continue to mount. Decades’ worth of extreme corruption in property gambles, debt defaults and fully fledged bankruptci­es, nonpayment of suppliers and tax chiselling have reportedly attracted more than 4,000 lawsuits. And the new president refuses to divest any of his business holdings, assuring conflict-of-interest probes that may become formal impeachmen­t proceeding­s within weeks.

Political attacks on Trump-associated companies are even more important. In February 2016, for example, the activist network Colour of Change petitioned a major sponsor of the 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?” After 100,000 signatures within three weeks, Coca-Cola agreed to withhold $600,000 it had earlier earmarked to help pay for the convention.

Another is the Twitter network of several thousand clicktivis­ts. Since November, they have discovered more than 1,000 businesses and nonprofit institutio­ns advertisin­g (most without being aware) on the Breitbart white nationalis­t website. They confronted these firms by sending them a screenshot and requested that they withdraw their advertisin­g. Soon 400 firms did so.

Mega corporatio­ns are more difficult targets. The Dow Jones stock market index has soared since Trump’s victory on November 8, led by banking, oil and military firms. Trump’s Cabinet and top officials come from Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Lockheed Martin, Pfizer, General Dynamics, Wells Fargo, Amway, Hardees and Breitbart. Some will become obvious targets for a people’s sanctions strategy.

After Saturday’s protests, activists fighting hardest from within — and anyone else internatio­nally concerned about climate change — must now consider how to amplify the pressure. As SA showed, breaking big capital away from a fascist regime required a strategy that might now become known as “BDS USA”.


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