Trump’s China-Bashing Id

Does the president-elect’s newly appointed trade czar have a plan other than blaming China for everything?

Containers are seen at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai, China, September 24, 2016.

Containers at the Yangshan Deep Water Port, part of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, in Shanghai, China, Sept. 24, 2016.

Aly Song/Reuters

Donald Trump was elected promising to conjure up 25 million jobs over the next decade, and “be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” On Dec. 21, he announced the man who would be charged with bringing back many of those jobs from overseas: Peter Navarro, a 67-year-old professor at the University of California–Irvine’s business school, and former policy adviser to the Trump campaign, will head the newly created White House National Trade Council, and serve as an assistant to the president. According to Trump’s transition team, he “will develop trade policies that shrink our trade deficit, expand our growth, and help stop the exodus of jobs from our shores.” As such, Navarro could become one of America’s most influential economic voices. This should be cause for concern.

In his recent articles, books, and interviews, Navarro shares Trump’s strategy of casting aside nuance in favor of bombastic pronouncements, and of overpromising based on a cartoonish depiction of economics. Like Trump, Navarro relies on an oversimplified view of America’s economic woes: China stole American jobs, and, by standing up to China, we can wrest those jobs back.

Navarro’s 2011 book, Death by China: Confronting the Dragon—A Global Call to Action, co-written with the entrepreneur Greg Autry, lays out his economic worldview: “Over the past decade, riding tall astride the Trojan Horse of free trade, a ‘predatory’ China has stolen millions of American manufacturing jobs from under our noses.”  

Like Trump, he obsesses over China’s currency manipulation. “If money is the root of all evil, then China’s manipulation of its currency, the yuan, is the tap root of everything wrong with the U.S.-China trade relationship.” Downplaying larger factors like America’s movement up the value chain, automation, and globalization, Navarro sees Chinese policy as the main reason for the loss of America’s manufacturing jobs. He believes China’s currency manipulation “is threatening to tear asunder the entire global economic fabric and free trade framework.” While some economists in 2011 believed the yuan was undervalued, Navarro drastically overstates the effect of China’s relatively weak yuan on America’s economy.

Navarro also believes American companies that shut down aging factories in the United States and “open up gleaming, new state-of-the-art facilities in Dragonland” are showing “no patriotism”; for sharing technology with Chinese firms, General Electric CEO Jeffery Immelt is like the head of Vichy France. These are extreme views. In an October profile in the New Yorker, the journalist Adam Davidson writes, “Navarro’s views on trade and China are so radical, however, that, even with his assistance, I was unable to find another economist who fully agrees with them.”

Some of Navarro’s claims are simply factually false. He claims that eating imported Chinese food—which he implies is always contaminated by “banned antibiotics, putrefying bacteria, heavy metals, or illegal pesticides”—is “suicidal.” It’s not. He claims China’s “ultra-lax worker health and safety standards [are] so far below international norms they make brown lung, butchered limbs, and a dizzying array of cancers not just occupational hazards but virtual certainties.” But even in 2011, the vast majority of Chinese didn’t work in Dickensian sweatshops—and those who did were not virtually guaranteed a gruesome illness or death.

It might not be fair to complain about the writing, but Navarro can do much better (more on that later). The chapter headlines read like a Mad Libs where the phrases are borrowed from Daily Mail headlines: “Death by Chinese Spy: How Beijing’s ‘Vacuum Cleaners’ are Stealing the Rope to Hang Uncle Sam,” or “Death by Dark Liu: Look Ma, There’s a Death Star Pointing at Chicago.” Malformed clichés pervade the book. The authors title a section on Caterpillar offshoring to China “The Big Cat Kowtows to the Red Dragon”; the part of the book involving China’s human rights violations is called “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Chinese Gulag.” Titling a section about Africa “An Overpopulated Dragon Overruns the Dark Continent” is problematic, and not just from a literary standpoint.

I’ve read dozens of China books. This is the worst one that I’ve ever read. (Navarro, Autry, and Trump’s transition team didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

That Trump and Navarro share so many views on trade isn’t only worrying because of what those views are. Many of Trump’s aides presumably see themselves in the president-elect, or admire him. But few, if any, publicly identify with him the same way that Navarro does. It’s hard to imagine Navarro pushing back on any of Trump’s proposals in the way that Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense, reportedly caused him to revise his views on the efficacy of torture.

In a June article in the National Interest, Navarro argued that if Trump implemented his promised 45 percent tariff on Chinese exports, the trade deficit would solve itself. “The far more likely Trump scenario is this,” he writes. “Chinese leaders realize they no longer have a weak leader in the White House, China ceases its unfair trade practices, American’s massive trade deficit with China comes peacefully and prosperously back into balance, and both the US and Chinese economies benefit from trade.”

That sequence of events is extremely unlikely to ever happen; the more likely scenario is a trade war damaging to both countries. The problem with this magical thinking is, will Navarro advise Trump to have a back-up plan for what they expect doesn’t come to pass? What happens when Beijing does retaliate?

Navarro is a smarter and more nuanced thinker than his works over the past decade indicate. He has done well-regarded research on public utilities, for example. Before getting his Ph.D., from Harvard, Navarro worked as a policy analyst, and spent three years in the Peace Corps in Thailand. A Harvard Ph.D., Navarro has taught at UC–Irvine since 1989, and has written more than a dozen books.

These range from the 2001 If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks: The Investor’s Guide to Profiting From News and Other Market-Moving Events—the type of book your uncle embarrassingly quotes from to justify his portfolio decisions—to a 1998 memoir, San Diego Confidential. The tale of Navarro’s two unsuccessful campaigns as a Democrat, for Congress and mayor, the memoir is surprisingly amusing and remarkably candid. Skimping on a campaign treasurer for his mayoral election, he writes, “wound up costing me several major investigations, lots of bad press, thousands of dollars in fines, and a dangerous flirtation with a jail cell.”

He describes volunteers manning phone banks and calling on behalf of “Democrats for Navarro,” a “phony organization,” which “creates the useful illusion of external partisan support and strong party affiliation.” He continues, “By the way, please don’t give me a hard time about this phony front-group stuff. It’s standard operating procedure in the sleazy world of politics.” (He also claims his opponent played “the vagina card”—telling people to vote for her, because Congress needs more women.) Navarro the 1998 writer sounds like the slightly bitter but amusing raconteur at the cocktail party, whereas Navarro work’s from 2011 and later reminds one of the guy who stands uncomfortably close and whispers about Alex Jones.

The lesson from San Diego Confidential applicable to Navarro today is his ideological flexibility: In the book, a colleague quips his campaign slogan should be “Navarro: Elect Him Before He Changes His Mind and Becomes a Republican Again.”

Navarro was prescient in seeing Trump’s potential, and, as the only Ph.D. in economics among the Trump campaign’s top policy advisers, offered credibility to the candidate. In Trump, Navarro found a politician who shared his penchant for facile solutions to complicated problems. In other words, Navarro brilliantly anticipated the American people’s demand for blaming America’s economic woes on China. But many of his ideas are still dangerously wrong. And, tragically, he’s smart enough to know it.