The case for a people’s smart sanctions campaign against Trump’s America

Protesters hold up signs during a march and rally against Donald Trump in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

The forces arrayed against Donald Trump’s presidency and the emboldened neo-fascist movement in the US range from the Central Intelligence Agency to oppressed minorities and women anticipating the loss of reproductive rights. They could soon encompass most of the world once Trump’s climate change threats meet resistance.

But opposition to Trump from above – moderate Republicans, Democratic Party elites, so-called Deep State opponents, exporting companies concerned about protectionism, as well as “budget deficit hawks” worried about Trump’s borrow and default history – could soon fade away.

In contrast, resistance from below will continue rising as progressive activists move out of their single-issue silos and offer each other solidarity. Could this resistance be mobilised into a global movement against Trump, perhaps drawing lessons from the victory against apartheid South Africa? Is a global sanctions strategy appropriate against the new president, his cronies and US corporations more generally?

Lessons from the past

Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaigns now underway 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 fuels industry.

But the sanctions campaign against apartheid, which formed a critical part of the resistance against the South African regime, 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 South Africa campaign drove a strategic wedge between white capitalists in the country and the racist Pretoria regime. Just as internal protests surged in the mid-1980s, the regime was confronted by a foreign debt crisis caused in part by the rising tide of sanctions. This finally 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 would be Trump’s stance on climate.

Trump’s climate chaos

Climate change denialism is the “default position” of Trump’s government, as confirmed by his chief of staff. According to Trump’s 100-day plan he will build fossil-fuel pipelines, airports, roads and bridges. He will cancel international obligations like the United Nations 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 and will attempt 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. These include secretary of state Rex Tillerson, EPA director Scott Pruitt and energy secretary Rick Perry.

Voices for sanctions and carbon tariffs

Already 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.

The idea was reaffirmed last November when 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.

States may also join in. French former president Nicolas Sarkozy had this to say: “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.”

Micro-sanctions are already stinging Trump. He recently defended clothing retailer LL Bean against the #grabyourwallet boycott of 75 Trump-related firms. His ego may have been bruised by singer Cher’s “Turn him off” call aimed at denying the inauguration a substantial television audience. Most A-list entertainers rejected invitations to perform on inauguration day while dozens of Democratic Party members of Congress announced a stay-away.

Trump’s vulnerable business interests

Setting aside other personal pin-pricks from journalists and politicians which have drawn blood, activist and legal attacks on Trump’s business continue to mount. Decades worth of extreme corruption in real estate gambles, debt defaults and full-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.

Grievances against his family-firm holdings are legion, but political attacks on Trump-associated companies are far more important. Last February, for example, the activist network Color of Change petitioned a major sponsor of the Republican Party annual 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 success is the “Sleeping Giants” Twitter network of several thousand clicktivists. Since last 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 from the sites. Soon 400 firms had done 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 bank, ExxonMobil oil, Koch Industries oil, Lockheed Martin military, Pfizer drugs, General Dynamics military, Wells Fargo bank, Amway beauty, Hardees food and Breitbart media. Some of these would be the most obvious targets for a people’s smart sanctions strategy.

As soon as the time is ripe it will be up to grassroots activists fighting hardest from within – and anyone else concerned about climate – to make the call: Boycott Divestment Sanctions USA.