Most presidential candidates have a bunch of academic economists and PhD policy experts from universities as advisers. Hillary Clinton has dozens. Donald Trump, however, has only one: an economist at the UC Irvine business school named Peter Navarro. He’s sticking with Trump even after the groping tape. He ran for office several times as a Democrat—and lost. His status as the only academic on Trump’s economic advisory team says a lot about the ideas and proposals that Trump has been espousing.
Navarro, who has a PhD in economics from Harvard, is known primarily for his 2011 book Death by China, which he also made into a film. It’s not hard to see why Trump would be interested: The book declares that China is “rapidly turning into the planet’s most efficient assassin.” China’s entrepreneurs will “pick off American industries, job by job,” while China’s military is “racing towards head-on confrontation with the U.S.” Trump blurbed the movie version: “‘Death by China’ is right on,” he wrote. Now Navarro is regarded, in the words of The Guardian, as “Trump’s adviser on China.”
In a sign of Navarro’s influence, Trump talked about trade with China in the first debate: “Look at what China’s doing to our country,” he said. “They’re devaluing their currency…. they’re the best, the best ever at it.”
That’s just plain wrong. “China’s currency has actually appreciated rapidly over the past decade,” The Washington Post reported, “and recently, China’s central bank has been intervening in the markets to bolster the yuan to prevent a depreciation.”
The International Monetary Fund also declared last year that China’s currency was no longer undervalued. “Trump’s comments show a total lack of understanding of what is happening right now on the Chinese currency front,” Andrew Polk, chief China economist at Medley Global Advisors, told the Post.
When I asked Navarro whether he agreed with the fact-checkers about Trump on China’s currency, he didn’t reply directly, but instead sent a 25-page paper on currency manipulation published four years ago by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. That institute released a new study in September that concluded, “Trump’s sweeping proposals on international trade, if implemented, could unleash a trade war that would plunge the US economy into recession and cost more than 4 million private sector American jobs.”
Navarro has been Trump-like in attacking Hillary Clinton on trade with China. On Breitbart News he called her “bad trade deal Hillary”—somehow that didn’t stick—and said that, on trade, she was “a pathological liar like her husband.” But he didn’t always feel that way about Clinton. He ran for office four times as a Democrat, including a campaign for Congress in 1996 in San Diego, where Hillary Clinton campaigned for him. In his 1998 memoir, San Diego Confidential, he wrote, “I don’t know why so many people in America hate Hillary Clinton. I found her to be one of the most gracious, intelligent, perceptive, and, yes, classy women I have ever met.”
Are there really no other academic economists working for Trump? There is a group calling itself “Economists Concerned by Hillary Clinton’s Economic Agenda,” 305 people who published a letter on September 26. They restate the Republican establishment position, for lower taxes, less spending, and reduced regulation, and, notably, free trade. Maybe that’s why they did not call themselves “Economists for Trump.” The Trump campaign reprinted the letter and attached the list of names at the campaign website, even though the letter never mentions Trump and opposes his signature position on trade.
A few professors in other fields have declared that they support Trump. Recently a pro-Trump group calling itself “Scholars and Writers for America” published their own statement—a single sentence declaring that Trump “is the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.” None of them have withdrawn their support despite the groping tape, according to F.H. Buckley of the Scalia Law School at George Mason University, who helped organize the group. But the 150 signers include only 70 who list academic affiliations; the group includes “scholars” like Callista Gingrich, wife of Newt and author of the “Ellis the Elephant” series of children’s books (the “scholars” letter describes her as “co-author of Rediscovering God in America,” but the cover of that book lists Newt as the author and says the book is “featuring the photography of Calista Gingrich”). The school with the most scholars for Trump is Hillsdale College, perhaps the most right-wing college in America—it refuses to accept federal student aid in order to avoid federal regulations. It has around 145 faculty members, but only five signed the statement supporting Trump. “Scholars and Writers for Trump” does include a couple of names of prominent academics—probably number one is Scott Soames, a distinguished philosopher of language at USC. But there are about 10,000 philosophers in the United States, and he’s virtually the only one supporting Trump.
What about law professors for Trump? The Federalist Society is a well-established and massively successful institution connecting conservatives on law faculties with the Republican party. Trump has said all his judges will be “picked by the Federalist Society.” But the society’s members don’t seem to support Trump in any organized way. Their website does have a “Donald Trump” page, but it consists of only two posts, the most recent from July 20, quoting without comment Trump’s criticism of Dodd-Frank banking regulations from his convention speech. The co-founder and chairman of the Federalist Society’s Board of Directors, Steven Calabresi of Northwestern Law School, was outed by a student news website for having contributed the maximum to Trump in the primaries ($2,700), but he explained that he contributed to other Republican primary candidates as well, and said that in the primary he voted for John Kasich. He would not vote for Trump in November, he said, because Trump’s behavior has been “appalling.”
There is a group called “Law Professors for Trump/Pence”—they have a Super PAC, created by “Professor Victor Williams,” who himself was sort of a Republican candidate for president—a write-in candidate whose website is still headed “Disqualify Ted Cruz—‘Natural-Born Canadian,’ ‘Eh.’” But the only name at the Law Professors for Trump website is “Professor Victor Williams” himself. He says he was once a “tenured associate professor of law at the City University of New York’s John Jay College in Manhattan,” but now is pursuing “formal Biblical and theological study at Wesley Theological Seminary.” When I e-mailed Williams asking how many law professors were in his group, he didn’t provide a number, and commented, “I do not list members or supporters of the Super PAC—chiefly out of respect for their career interests. Universities are very quick to power wash a ‘chalked’ Trump off their sidewalks. Equally easy to place a scarlet T on a young attorney or prof’s personnel file.”
American colleges and universities are often accused of liberal bias in their faculties, because most of them vote Democratic. Is that why Trump has only one economics professor on his advisory team, why only a handful of academics in any field have declared they support him? Or is it because his ideas are indefensible and his ignorance appalling? Notably, it’s not just professors who don’t support Trump. This year, according to The Wall Street Journal, not a single CEO from a Fortune top-100 corporation supports the Republican candidate. That may be Trump’s most remarkable political achievement: liberal arts professors and corporate CEOs, together at last.