The health of millions of Americans depends on Peter Navarro, and Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews finds that a chilling scenario. Navarro, a not-too-successful and much-reviled San Diego politician is one of President Trump’s top lieutenants, with a to-do list that includes procuring medical supplies during the coronavirus pandemic and setting trade policy with China. Mathews says Navarro’s career has been short on substance and long on inflammatory accusations. That he’s risen to the top, speaks volumes about present-day politics.
Read Joe Mathew's Connecting California column below:
The 20th century produced the Peter Principle: in hierarchy, you get promoted until you reach your level of incompetence.
The 21st century provides the Peter Navarro Principle: if you’re angry and accusatory enough, your incompetence won’t impede your rise.
Peter Navarro is a failed California politician who, frighteningly, leads White House efforts to reopen the country and produce medical equipment to protect America from COVID-19. The story of how one of San Diego’s worst political candidates rose to power during America’s worst modern crisis is a nightmarish lesson about who wins when our national conversation becomes dominated by accusation.
Navarro’s career is often recounted as a political mystery: how did a progressive Democrat from San Diego turn into a leading Trumpist? But Navarro’s life is not mysterious—it’s about consistent personal attacks.
Navarro earned a Harvard economics Ph.D (with an accusatory thesis blasting “special interests”) before joining the UC Irvine faculty. He lived in San Diego, and became a prominent NIMBY. His group Prevent Los Angelization Now attacked anyone who dared to build anything.
He might have won high office—if not for his addiction to accusation. In 1992, while leading the race for San Diego mayor, Navarro foolishly attacked Susan Golding over her ex-husband’s conviction for drug money laundering. The attack backfired, creating sympathy for Golding, who rallied to win.
Navarro did not learn his lesson. He ran angry—and losing— campaigns for city council in 1993, county supervisor in 1994, for Congress in 1996, and council again in 2001. Larry Remer, Navarro’s campaign consultant, recently called his former client “the biggest asshole I’ve ever known.”
Navarro was not classy in defeat. Instead, he published an accusatory book, San Diego Confidential that recounted every accusation from his campaigns while commenting on the sex lives of his opponents.
After giving up elected politics, Navarro began publishing finger-pointing books with names like Death by China. His critiques went beyond criticism of human rights abuses into racist claims. His books were peppered with “expert” quotes (“You’ve got to be nuts to eat Chinese food”) purportedly from businessman Ron Vara, who Navarro made up as an anagram of his own name.
The books, like his campaigns, weren’t taken seriously by academics. But that didn’t matter; in his devotion to anger and accusation, Navarro was actually ahead of his time.
On the Internet, Navarro’s over-the-top accusations were catnip. Donald Trump hired him as a campaign advisor and then as a top administration trade official.
In the White House, Navarro was at first sidelined by aides with better credentials and social graces. But such internal rivals were no match for Navarro, who routinely attacked and undermined colleagues to win the confidence of Trump, a fellow master of accusation. By 2018, Navarro was using his growing influence to convince the president to start destructive trade wars.
When you make a lot of accusations, sometimes you’ll hit the right target. This January, Navarro, ever attacking China, wrote a prescient memo predicting that COVID-19 would become a full-blown pandemic. But Navarro’s reputation for anti-China invective allowed others in the White House to dismiss his views as overly alarmist.
By March, Navarro had the most important task in the country: using national defense powers to secure medical supplies and machines for the pandemic response. But Navarro, for all his skill with accusation, had no experience to ramp up medical equipment production. The administration’s failure to deliver supplies has left states fending for themselves.
The San Diegan still made time for accusation, launching a bitter personal attack on Dr. Tony Fauci Navarro also falsely claimed that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine works as a COVID-19 treatment.
Perhaps you believe that karma will catch up with such a man, that he will be held accountable. Maybe someday, in some other country. But not now, not here, in the United States of Accusation.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.