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.”