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Peter Navarro: the tragic prophet of Trumpism The advisor's conviction embodies America's lost revolution

The Janus-faced aspect of the Trump movement (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Janus-faced aspect of the Trump movement (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


September 13, 2023   6 mins

When Peter Navarro stood in front of a Washington DC courthouse to speak to the press after a trial convicted him of contempt of Congress last week, he was repeatedly heckled by a woman with a sign yelling “Traitor!” He faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. It was a sorry spectacle and the ignominious nadir to a once-promising career.

Navarro, even more than his former boss, Donald Trump, represented the Janus-faced aspect of the Trump movement. On the one hand, he was an often-brilliant maverick economist who correctly diagnosed the fallacies and imbalances of the pre-2016 globalised world order, calling out America’s dependence on China and warning of the consequences of an eroding domestic industrial base. On the other, he was the partisan hatchet-man par excellence who just as well embodied the hard-edged conspiratorial lunacy that’s consumed the energies of the American Right. How the economic prophet and the political sycophant co-existed, before the latter overshadowed and eventually consumed the former, is the tragic story of the Trump movement writ large.

Of course, the story isn’t over and Trump himself, if not Navarro and his other former advisers, could very well emerge politically stronger from his legal battles. But the story of Navarro should nonetheless provoke some reflection: for it can serve as an instructive warning about what happens when politics is severed from its policy content or, indeed, from any larger moral objective — and becomes simply about the prosecution of feuds based on pure friend-enemy distinctions. Indeed, the many media reports of Navarro’s trial make little mention of his prodigious policy background: he is simply described as a Trump adviser, but digging deeper into his record and publications reveals a thinker ahead of his time.

After earning his doctorate in economics at Harvard, Navarro held a number of teaching posts at the University of California in the Eighties, from where he authored dozens of books and articles on everything from trade and energy policy to the fortunes of the working class and the capture of Congress by lobbyists. He often wrote in a strident, headstrong style, assailing the political class and its takeover by special interests. At this time, however, Navarro was still very much a free-trade advocate, lending his authority to the general Washington consensus about the desirability of further global market integration, and warning against the use of tariffs and trade protectionism.

He said as much in his 1984 book, The Policy Game: How Special Interests and Ideologues are Stealing America, sounding every bit like a faithful devotee of Ricardian economics: “If the world is, in fact, sucked into this spiral, enormous gains from trade will be sacrificed. While such a sacrifice might save some jobs in sheltered domestic industries, it will destroy as many or more in other home industries, particularly those that rely heavily on export trade.” These sentiments would later be cited by his media critics to embarrass him when he radically changed course and became a militant trade hawk.

In these years, Navarro was a political transient, alternating between Republican, Democratic, and Independent registrations. He ran for Congress in the Nineties as a Clinton Democrat, garnering the endorsement of the First Lady, and highlighted his liberal stances on the environment, abortion, and gay rights, while authoring a primer for investors to take advantage of global trade networks. His support for the Clintons lasted, at least nominally, until 2008, when Hillary first ran for president — at which point he became disillusioned and drifted away from the centrist mainstream, feeling that conventional liberals and conservatives alike were letting America down just as the globalised economic system was beginning to crack. He would find a new political home and a new presidential patron soon enough.

It was a couple of years after this that Navarro co-authored a book called Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action, which read like a manifesto for a future populist-nationalist agenda. Building off on an earlier title, The Coming China Wars, Navarro gave rhetorical voice to his long-running economic critique of Chinese duplicity and American complicity in the then-still sacrosanct globalised world order, marshalling his research into an aggressive, almost pugilistic attack. The book especially catalogued the many abuses that had become common practice for the Chinese government after its American-sponsored accession to the World Trade Organization 10 years earlier: currency manipulation, unauthorised trade subsidies, use of slave labour, and intellectual property theft.

US policymakers, however, chose to turn a blind eye to these already well-known Chinese policies, under the illusion — still guiding both parties — that China could eventually be tamed and habituated into liberal norms through progressive integration into the US-led global order. The book was turned into a documentary (narrated by Martin Sheen) and one review from the New York Times acknowledged that Navarro’s claims were worthy of examination but criticised it for its “alarming and alarmist” style, with its “an abundance of inflammatory language and cheesy graphics”. If liberal outlets like the NYT had taken Navarro’s arguments more seriously, perhaps they wouldn’t have been caught off guard by the political backlash that came in 2016, when Donald Trump’s campaign took these grievances on the road.

Navarro’s prescience made him a logical choice to serve in a trade portfolio in the new administration. And from within his perch as Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, Navarro set to work altering America’s trade strategy, applying the same bluster he had displayed as a commentator, and clashing as much with traditional Republicans as with the White House’s Democratic and liberal media opponents. His goal was to displace the free-trade orthodoxy he had once championed. Navarro’s influence could be seen in the administration’s break with the Trans-Pacific Partnership on day one, the trade war with China, and the renegotiation of Nafta (after which Navarro said there would be a “special place in hell” for Justin Trudeau for retaliating against Trump on steel tariffs).

A proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan Navarro had worked out with then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross could possibly have allowed the Trump administration to deliver on its promises to rebuild America — had Republicans in Congress not scuttled the scheme. (Now, Trump’s failure on infrastructure is routinely mocked by Biden, who has effectively aped the same strategy.) Overall, Navarro’s role had been to interpret and distil Trump’s broad directives into actionable policies and he had excelled in it. The moment of truth came with the early 2020 outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, in which the best and worst of Navarro’s instincts came to the fore.

In response to early reports of a Chinese-originated virus, Navarro was quick to argue for providing massive new fiscal appropriations to keep the country safe along with restricting travel to and from China (just as Trump’s other advisers were calling for giving out visas to wealthy Chinese investors). Aside from being an early vocal advocate for supply-chain resiliency, Navarro played a leading role in coordinating Operation Warp Speed, which utilised the Defense Production Act to mobilise resources toward the development of a vaccine.

But even as he took charge of the administration’s central policy response, Navarro endorsed quack cures like hydroxychloroquine, while repeatedly blaming Anthony Fauci, not just for initiating lockdowns, but for being responsible for the virus itself, alleging that he had funded the Chinese lab that bred the disease (and, therefore, was “the father” of Covid-19). This strange combination of the qualities in Peter Navarro, the confident and the paranoid, the substantive and the conspiratorial, the clear-eyed policymaker and the schoolyard tough guy, just about sums up the legacy of the Trump era. Its greatest executive achievement had been Operation Warp Speed — a project that would have marked any other presidency for political greatness — but due to the Right’s aversion to showing support for anything resembling “Fauci-ism”, Trump himself later came to disown Warp Speed, downplaying the importance of Navarro’s policy masterstroke.

Navarro himself didn’t seem to mind. He was loyal to his boss and backed Trump to the hilt in his vainglorious scorched-earth attempt to claim victory in the 2020 election — a delusional struggle that had nothing whatsoever to do with any specific policy or governing programme. At this point, whatever larger policy goals had caused Navarro to support the former president had become entirely subordinate to his personal loyalty to the man himself.

Indeed, whenever, he appears in public nowadays, Navarro never speaks about such mundane things as the balance of trade or steel tariffs or industrial policy anymore. It is only ever to replay and endlessly litigate the election of 2020, which the vast majority of American voters have already moved on from. Navarro the economist had been completely devoured and digested by Navarro the courtier. Policy had become utterly meaningless before the friend-enemy distinction. As Slavoj Žižek would say, it is the Lacanian “surplus enjoyment” of intensifying partisan antagonism, far more than any serious ideological content, which has come to largely sustain American politics.

Peter Navarro could have earned a place in history as the brain trust of the Trump presidency, what the New Deal intellectuals had been to FDR, or what John Kenneth Galbraith had been to JFK. Along with fellow trade hawk Robert Lighthizer, he provided enough vision and academic heft to mount a genuine economic transformation. But he was always outnumbered by traditional Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Larry Kudlow, which is why the administration’s great legislative achievement was instead a George W. Bush-style tax cut. And he never had enough discipline to stay focused on the long game. In the end, largely due to the uneven and haphazard qualities of advisers such as Navarro, the Trump years will, to misquote Leon Trotsky, be remembered not as a revolution betrayed but as a revolution fumbled.


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.

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Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
8 months ago

” … while repeatedly blaming Anthony Fauci, not just for initiating lockdowns, but for being responsible for the virus itself, alleging that he had funded the Chinese lab that bred the disease (and, therefore, was “the father” of Covid-19).”
Fauci DID channel funds to the Wuhan lab through NIH. That is why we are still not being told who was responsible for developing the virus.
Anthony Fauci Knew NIH Funded Wuhan’s Gain-of-Function Research as Covid Pandemic Began | National Review

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
8 months ago

Thankyou. You’ve saved me the trouble of pointing that out.

rod gartner
rod gartner
8 months ago

One of the built in advantages for liberals these days is that, truly and sincerely, Even the most nonsensically outlandish random liberal crazies pulled from under a rock somewhere in CA is *STILL* many many notches below “daily baseline” crazy that The right must *daily* armwrestle for control a couple hours of news cycle.

I laughed for about 15 minutes when I read that Matt Shea of easten washington and Almost Ruby Ridge 2.0: Cattle Grazing boogalo managed to blow up the another painstakingly low-key regional politican’;s spot .
*MATT SHEA! THE BUNDIES!! STILL!

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago

Someone should send this bloke a copy of RFK’s book on Fauci. If only a tenth of the copious evidence RFK presents is true then the guy should have been jailed long ago. He is an avatar for deep state corruption of process.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
8 months ago

…a conviction for contempt of congress is a fall from grace? More likely its a badge of honor in the current socio-political upheaval.

Peter Christine
Peter Christine
8 months ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

In the “Historical Documents” of the BBC series “Yes Prime Minister”, Bernard informs James Hacker of a particular earned honor, the JBB “Jailed By the British”

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
8 months ago
Reply to  Bernard Hill

Indeed. The lack of any conviction details and Peter’s possibly legitimate reason for not testifying should have been included but that information might have conflicted with the story’s narrative of: Thinker turned wayward Pitbull

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago

By quoting Zizek, I feel comfortable saying the author is sympathetic to Marx and the idea of class struggle.  Therefore it should be stated that if you’re going to accuse people of “conspiracy theories” you should acknowledge that every variant of Marxism is a just irrational conspiracy theory married to bread crumbs of truth.

Marxist Economics sees everything as a zero sum game where one group’s gains can only come at the expense of another group…as if Mercantilism never ended. Marxist analysis retains the colonial oppressor/oppressed dynamic and then describes how “invisible systems of oppression” still run the postcolonial world in subtle harmful ways that only enlightened Theorists can find.  In the Marxist view, oppression didn’t go away, it just reinvented itself.   The last part is actually true but Marxists believe they’re the only ones able to singlehandedly identify the source…Capitalism and economic growth.  They believe economic growth is “unsustainable” for the planet and widens disparities so people are just going to have to learn to live with less.  Apparently everyone will be happier when Scarcity is introduced.

But “Economic Populism” in America does not buy into the Rich=Bad, Poor=Good dynamic.  Sometimes the workers are the good guys and sometimes they’re not.  It depends on the circumstances as any balanced person will acknowledge.  Economics is not a Manichean struggle of Light vs Dark.  America First populism doesn’t tell everybody to develop a “class consciousness” about their status on the economic hierarchy.  The goal is economic growth and prosperity that raises conditions across income groups. 

It’s not targeting the elimination of group disparities (although that does incidentally occur as a result of economic growth in a capitalist economy).  What it’s trying to do is gradually increase opportunities for more people in order for them rise up the social ladder, become self-sufficient, prosperous and unreliant on a central planner.  Its not trying to collect mass demographic information so it can tinker with identity or income group outcomes.  There was no “economic revolution.” America First Populism was simply a set of policies that sought to protect America’s national interest first by maximizing the opportunities to its people…just as every country should do for its people.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

This comment has absolutely nothing to do with what has been written in the article

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

America First= Navarro. Read it again.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

The article was about his swings from good policy such as pulling back from China and attempting to restore some manufacturing mixed with his stupid ones such as claiming the election was rigged simply to appease his boss. It laments how by allowing the nonsense to take priority over the important stuff he’s eventually caused his own downfall, despite being a handy economist.
It not once mentions Marxism, which seems to be the entire basis of your comment

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Again he cites Zizek as inspiration. He also references Trotsky for God sakes.

The “important stuff” he’s alluding to is class struggle. He refers to “revolution” and “economic transformation.” The author is clearly well versed in Fabian Socialism.

Unlike Britain, America has historically not tolerated Socialism until the ACA. The bits of Nationalized Socialism that we do have (if you want to call it that) were built up during wartime emergency powers during WW2 and Vietnam.

Because the American public has historically reviled Socialism, it had to be slipped in the back door through Academia in cultural studies departments. So the only people in America that understand Socialism are practioners and the few Conservatives that bothered to study Global Affairs.

There’s a reason that so many Bernie Sanders voters switched to Trump. Because Trump was speaking the language of Anti-Elitism which many on the left conflated with class revolution. This particular author repeatedly bemoans the “failed revolution” because he didn’t understand the distinction between the two concepts.

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I am sorry, you clearly did not read article.
Zizek is Marxists and Galbraight was favourite Western economist of Soviet Block for reasons I explained in another post.
So yes, author did not mention Marxism or Communism directly but his use of quotes clearly shows where his loyalties are..

Y Way
Y Way
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Marxism is at the very crux of Progressive ideology today. It is exactly what Navarro hates most. Communist ideology and Communists gaining power in our world are his nemesis.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Don’t think you’ve quite understood the point he’s making.

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Yes, I replied about commie idiot Zizek before reading your post.
Author is free to move to alternative political system, he clearly supports.
I think most readers on Unherd would found his one way ticket to North Korea.

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

The loony Identity Marxists create the perfect environment for Orthodox Marxists to sound like reasonable, mainstream thinkers.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

your comment about Marxism is simply an opinion.

T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

What does that even mean? Marxism itself is an “opinion” about how the world operates through invisible sources of power.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Every comment on this forum is an opinion. What are you on about?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
8 months ago

What I find odd is that so few of the Republican Party, even their Right, looked at the events of August 2020 and concluded, publically, that America had already had its Jan 6 when the POTUS was locked into his security quarters while scores of security personnel were injured by marauding left-wing rioters outside.
Elsewhere, civillians lives were lost and 10s of millions of dollars damage done to property in American towns and cities.
Yet none of this registers as a political point about street thugs interfering in the democratic process, or really, the status of the United States as a liberal democracy with an open and free civil society.

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Obviously, because rioters and looters and killers are “suppressed minorities”, so they are never responsible for their actions.
How is it that we have all this videos on YouTube of black people contesting arrest for traffic offences against black police officers?
Nothing to do with racism.
Everything to do with overentitled, low IQ people expecting special treatment, when committing crimes, because they are black.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
8 months ago

“In the end, largely due to the uneven and haphazard qualities of advisers such as Navarro…”

They have nothing on establishment stonewalling, and what should be plain now is the role Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell played in preventing more significant developments.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

Reads like an orthodox anti-populist, neo-liberal critique. Don’t know much about Navarro, but sounds like he had some good ideas, maybe some not so good as well.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Which is exactly what the article said.

Paul Hendricks
Paul Hendricks
8 months ago

Operation Warp Speed was political theater in the first place, which is why it was so easy to disown later on. (The so-called vaccine itself certainly can’t be considered a success.)

Have the “vast majority of voters moved on” from the scandalous 2020 election? In that case, I hope Navarro keeps talking about it.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
8 months ago

“But even as he took charge of the administration’s central policy response, Navarro endorsed quack cures like hydroxychloroquine, while repeatedly blaming Anthony Fauci, not just for initiating lockdowns, but for being responsible for the virus itself, alleging that he had funded the Chinese lab that bred the disease (and, therefore, was “the father” of Covid-19)”

Stopped reading after this bollox!

Last edited 8 months ago by Carmel Shortall
Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
8 months ago

Was also tempted to stop reading… For me Toni Fauci belongs in jail and I hope Senator Rand Paul will get him there.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago

What’s he in gaol for?

One of those weird American felonies?

Transporting a mallard across state lines for immoral purposes, or something?

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
8 months ago

Navarro was much more important than most realise. The single most important policy shift of the Trump period was to break with orthodoxy and take on China economically. Though subsequently embraced by Biden, the new policy was bitterly opposed at the time by the economic establishment led within the White House by Gary Cohn. After Steve Bannon was booted, Cohn appeared to be winning and the Trump regime condemned to follow orthodox economic and trade policies. Instead Navarro hung in and eventually Cohn was forced out. No Navarro; no new China policy. Pity about the flaws.

William Shaw
William Shaw
8 months ago

You refer to Navarro as a “political sycophant.”
Is this what left wing writers call every supporter of a right wing politician?

Andrew F
Andrew F
8 months ago

This is weird article.
There is no mention why Navarro was found of contempt of Congress.
But we have quotes from Zizek, useless Marxist and mention of Galbraight, favourite “Western” economist in Soviet Block.
Who claimed there was convergence between Communist and Capitalist systems.
Obviously we know there was not any convergence, so bringing pro commie idiot into conversation does not help.

Konstantinos Stavropoulos
Konstantinos Stavropoulos
8 months ago

Michael Cuenco is obviously a political soldier, indifferent for basic elements of truth. That short of writing will push voters to Tramp. Good job Michael..!

DuBose Kapeluck
DuBose Kapeluck
8 months ago

This article has prompted me to cancel my subscription. Junk.

Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
8 months ago

“…when politics is severed from its policy content or, indeed, from any larger moral objective — and becomes simply about the prosecution of feuds based on pure friend-enemy distinctions.”

Politics always needs enemies to rail against. Otherwise it would fade away…fewer people would pay attention and most people would be better off for it.

Last edited 8 months ago by Rick Frazier
Benjamin Greco
Benjamin Greco
8 months ago

The revolution never had a chance because it was led by a clown.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
8 months ago

Maybe the real story is from Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, which in a better age we memorized in school, about keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
8 months ago

Didn’t know much about Navarro but this hatchet job of an article makes me think that maybe he’s not such a bad guy.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago

Navarro never properly explained why he refused to testify or provide documents to Congress. What’s he got to hide? It’s part of the Constitution that Congress can demand such, and there is considerable danger if people decide which bits they want to abide by and which they don’t. So just seems stupid…unless of course he really does have something malign to hide? As Trump said himself why use the 5th amendment if you’ve done nothing wrong only to then, groan, use it hundreds of times. Same hypocrisy. Folks claiming morale superiority need to practice what they preach.
Now it does seem Navarro had some interesting economic theories and given some key issues considerable thought worth absorbing, whether one agrees with them or not. Quite why he drifted into the more wacko pronouncements less clear. But he’s like so many who entered the Trump orbit, became intoxicated with chance of some unbridled power and lost their marbles in the process. And then ended up in legal jeopardy while Agent Orange of course walks away…or tries to. Navarro wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last of that we can 100% sure.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson

It’s a feature of many comments on Unherd, that analyses of “the problem” in articles on aspects of the current malaise, include the lament “…but no one says what to do about it”. Well Mr Navarro was one who did something practical about it, which includes his rebellion against Congress’s over-reach.