Peter Navarro is, like many of Donald Trump’s advisers, not from conventional government fields. But he may be the only one found by Jared Kushner when the-then candidate’s son-in-law was browsing Amazon.
Navarro had a long-time career as a minor Californian academic at U.C. Davis with a string of books to his name, many attacking China’s role in the world economy.
He was a notably liberal Democrat, running five times for offices including mayor of San Diego, and losing each time.
At the same time he became increasingly hawkish on China, in first academic papers, then in books.
But in 2011 his Death by China book was made into a movie voiced by Martin Sheen, and it changed his political positioning, moving him into the Tea Party sphere of anti-free traders who were then on the very fringes of Republican thought.
Perhaps he did not mention his previous support for wind energy, low-energy lightbulbs and carbon taxes.
But five years later his new position in the fringe-conservative world was to prove an advantage.
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As the Trump campaign looked to find people who backed the president’s ‘America First’ agenda, Kushner was browsing Amazon when he stumbled across the book Death by China.
In its author Kushner found a man happy to back the Trump agenda, and talk it up in aggressive terms on television.
Navarro had espoused isolationism, framing trade as a national security issue and simply leaving NAFTA for some years, although it was a re-framing of his academic career (which also included courses on person finances); the PhD he boasted about in the wake of his row with Dr. Tony Fauci was in fact about energy regulation.
He went into battle for Trump, whom he is not known to have met in any form before the campaign, writing an ‘economic analysis’ with Wilbur Ross – now the commerce secretary and a long-time Wall Street investor with bogus claims to be a billionaire – in favor of Trump’s agenda in the weeks before the 2016 election.
He accused opponents who called it ‘an immediate an unmitigated disaster’ and ‘phony numbers’ of simply being opposed to Trump.
Entering government as a trade advisor – a position not subject to Senate confirmation – he has proven a reliable, if thin-skinned, warrior for Trump on television.
In particular he has spoken up for tariffs, denying repeatedly that they are bad for the U.S. economy, and trying to offer cover to the president’s claim that they are not paid by U.S. purchasers but by foreign importers, which is derided as untrue by economists.
Affable on air if difficult to pin down and prone to filibustering, there have been whispers of clashes off-air over questions he dislikes.
But his high profile earned him the sort of scrutiny his books – hardly bestsellers – had not gained before.
Curiously, an Australian academic discovered, five of them included a character who was reliably anti-Chinese: Ron Vara.
‘You’ve got to be nuts to eat Chinese food,’ said ‘Ron,’ in one of his appearances, setting a broadly anti-Chinese tone. ‘Ron’ was a Gulf War veteran turned businessman in China.
Strangely, there was no real ‘Ron Vara’; in fact it was an anagram of Peter Navarro’s surname.
The views were same, but the military service was not: Navarro, now 70, was not drafted and appears to have benefited from college deferrals; after graduating he joined the Peace Corps and was a member when the draft for Vietnam was abolished.
Navarro tried to laugh off his fake character as a ‘literary device’ and a ‘joke’ despite his books not being fiction, and compared himself to Alfred Hitchcock making cameos in his own movies.
Death in China’s publisher had to add a note to future editions that it included a fake character; a co-author of one book said he had no idea that Navarro had used such a device.
Amazingly, ‘Ron’ made a re-appearance in a memo sent round Washington from his ‘own’ email address late last year, raising questions over whether his ‘thoughts’ were subject to records acts and freedom of information laws.
Navarro has recently gained a greater spotlight through a slightly uncertain role co-ordinating supplies of vital medical equipment – a role he appears to share with Kushner and possibly a three-star Navy admiral – at the same time as pushing for legislation to force manufacturing of such equipment in the U.S.
Never shy to praise his boss, he has substituted ‘Trump time’ for the plain English of ‘quickly,’ and repeatedly blamed the Obama administration for the lack of equipment, even though the Trump administration has been in power three years.
He has used a string of TV appearances to boast of ‘successes’ in tackling the pandemic, but is not in fact a member of the coronavirus task force, although he has increasingly appeared at their meetings – which was where he tried to confront Dr. Fauci over hydroxychloroquine.
That culminated in his boast about his PhD which apparently qualified him to ‘look at statistics’ on medicine, and to claim ‘doctors disagree all the time.’