IRVINE, Calif. — In the middle of a longshot bid to become the mayor of San Diego in 1992, Peter Navarro stripped down to his Speedo, dove into the Pacific and swam nearly a mile to a waterfront restaurant where he emerged, soaked and shivering, to face his rival for a head-to-head debate.
This was Navarro’s arrival in civic politics: a combative, unorthodox newcomer who wanted to stop the development of the beachside town and hinder attempts to turn it into a hub of global trade — and told voters that he alone could make it happen.
Today, Navarro is a combative and unorthodox newcomer to a different realm of politics. A month before taking office, President Donald Trump named him to head the newly formed National Trade Council, where Navarro holds down one end of what is reportedly becoming a contentious battle between nationalists and global-trade advocates. Navarro is perhaps the most extreme advocate in Washington, and maybe in all of economics, for an aggressive stance toward China, America’s largest trading partner. He has also served as a kind of one-man brain trust for Trump — the only academic who helped craft the Republican presidential candidate’s economic platform. With two graduate degrees from Harvard University, more than a dozen books, and a tenured professorship at the University of California at Irvine, he has unusually deep intellectual credentials in a White House heavily reliant on policy outsiders.
But at Irvine, where Navarro has taught for nearly three decades, a series of interviews with the 67-year-old’s former colleagues, campaign staffers and students reveal a character far more defined by his interest in the trench combat of politics and policy than in academic research. Navarro was technically teaching at Irvine when he emerged from the water in that 1992 mayoral race — a stunt meant to highlight “the linkage between the environment and the economy,” as Navarro said then — and he was also holding a faculty job during the four other political races he entered, all of which he lost. Those five campaigns grew increasingly dirty and divisive, largely due to Navarro’s own campaign tactics, leading him ultimately to leave San Diego divorced, in debt and under what some of his former campaign staffers described as “a dark cloud.”
Interviewed on campus and in neighboring towns between Irvine and San Diego, his colleagues painted a picture of a charismatic personality whose telegenic presence helped him launch a political career and later find an audience for economic theories that were considered fringe even by the confrontational standards of the field. Though many found themselves at a loss to describe what exactly sparked Navarro’s near-obsessive focus on China, they had no trouble understanding how he had moved from a polarizing political candidate and unconventional professor to a trusted West Wing adviser — largely attributing the rise to an arrogant, no-holds-barred style that nearly everyone interviewed described as a carbon copy of Trump himself.
“They’re two peas in the pod, I’m telling you,” said Beckie Mann, who managed Navarro’s mayoral campaign and the start of a subsequent bid for city council. “He and Trump, you could interchange their names. … I think they’re just scoundrels, myself.”
ON PAPER, NAVARRO'S path to prominence appears to have mostly followed the straight-and-narrow: Ivy League diploma, Peace Corps volunteer work, the books, and a long string of scholarly articles. His official résumé makes no mention of his forays into politics, but does boast three private-school degrees—including both a Master's of Public Administration and a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard—followed by teaching gigs at the University of California at San Diego and the University of San Diego. In 1989, at 40 years old, Navarro landed at the business school at Irvine, where he still keeps an office and remains a member of the faculty.
Although Navarro began his career studying energy policy, including a year as a policy analyst at the Department of Energy in 1979, at Irvine he began diving deeply into research surrounding China, first writing about the Asian nation sometime in the early 2000s. Noticing at the time that some of his former graduate students in the business school were losing jobs, Navarro told me he began delving into why that was and found that “all roads seemed to lead to the rise of China after it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.” His first book on the subject, The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought, How They Can Be Won, was initially published in 2006 and then was replaced less than two years later by an expanded edition.
“My own surprise is not that the world’s emerging ‘China Problem’ is as bad as I said it was in the first edition,” Navarro wrote in the author’s note of the 2008 version. “Rather, it is that many of the problems that I documented in that edition have become significantly worse — and have progressed much more rapidly than even I had projected. Indeed, since the initial publication of the book, not a day seems to go by without yet another chilling revelation about the dangers of a world economy increasingly ‘Made in China.’”
The tenor of his research, and the passion with which Navarro both pursued it and trumpeted it to his colleagues and students, set Navarro apart on campus, particularly one that boasts a significant Asian population. Last year more than 40 percent of the undergraduate student body at Irvine was of Asian descent, according to university data; a joke runs among students that UC Irvine’s acronym, UCI, actually stands for “University of Chinese Immigrants.”
While the courses Navarro taught were broadly based in economics and public policy, his antagonism toward China was pervasive, and it seeped into the classroom and around the business school. Perhaps the most striking example is his 2012 documentary — none-too-subtly titled “DEATH BY CHINA” — the same film that first put him on Trump’s radar. He had the movie screened on campus, and offered his undergraduate students 5 percent extra credit if they attended.
In the classroom, “he would frequently use China as an example of a country that practices dishonest or negative economic practices,” said Scottie Cheng, a 19-year-old sophomore who had Navarro for two introductory economics classes last year. While Navarro mostly taught mainstream economic theories — many of which he does not personally espouse — Cheng said he would pepper his online-based lectures with frequent mentions of China as a country that manipulates its currency and dumps its steel in the U.S., hurting domestic manufacturers.
“He was pretty good at keeping his craziness from the lectures,” said Cheng, a business administration major who said he earned an A and A-minus in the two classes. “Except for the frequent mentions of China.”
Alladi Venkatesh, a professor of management and informatics at the business school, said he remembered Navarro’s interest in China beginning about 15 years ago. While most Americans were looking at the growing relationship between the United States and China as a positive development, Navarro stood out by taking an opposing view. “He’s pro-capitalist, but he also cautioned against blind globalism,” said Venkatesh, who has been at Irvine since 1982. “So he took a point of view of, ‘Look, something else is happening. It’s not really globalization, but it’s coming at a cost to the country.’”
The fervor of his research was offputting to some of the other professors, colleagues said, because he went beyond simply analyzing the problem to “becoming anti-China,” as Venkatesh put it. “Obviously, his stance on China was by no means a popular position either within much of the U.S. or academia,” added Phil Bromiley, a professor of strategic management who has known Navarro since he arrived at UCI in 2005 and noted his personal respect for him. “He’s kind of been an odd man out.”
It’s a reputation that Navarro himself welcomes. “Over the course of my career, my mission has been to tackle complex public policy problems with a high degree of national, and often, international significance,” he wrote in an email. “As the unifying theme of a diverse body of work, I have sought to boldly challenge the conventional wisdom in innovative ways that yield new insights and ideas.”
Beyond the subject matter alone, however, colleagues said Navarro was unique for his relative lack of interest in getting published in peer-reviewed academic journals, the benchmark by which academics normally measure professional success. In the first 10 years of his career Navarro produced almost 30 articles for academic and peer-reviewed journals, according to his résumé, while in the last 10 years he lists only 16—about a quarter of which focus on teaching styles and online education rather than economics, business or even China. To be fair, he also lists only two books during the first decade of his career versus four in the most recent one, including two on China and one he wrote as a Democrat in 2010 focusing on, as the subtitle says, “Why the Path to Economic Ruin Runs Through the White House.”
Navarro defended his own publishing record in an email, saying that he has been throughout his career “remarkably consistent in terms of high productivity, with a relatively even mix between scholarly books and scholarly articles.” His colleagues paint a picture of a figure more energized by public policy debates and media attention than academic work. “He’s not doing the normal game as it’s defined in academics,” Bromiley said. “He’s much more interested in real policy problems and in having an impact on real policy problems, and that’s a little different.”
One academic economist who wrote positively about Navarro was Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, who lauded Navarro in a column for Bloomberg View last year as “one of the most versatile and productive American economists of the last few decades”—though he also, in the column, went on to disagree with many of Navarro’s major perspectives. I emailed him to ask what he thought specifically of Navarro’s trade views, and Cowen responded: “I think he is completely wrong on trade, and also against a strong professional consensus.”
Navarro himself has struggled in the past to produce a name of an economist who aligns with his worldview. The New Yorker asked him as much when it wrote its own profile last year, but both of the names Navarro offered fell through: Alan Tonelson, who frequently writes about trade on his blog, responded that he doesn’t “hold an economics degree,” while Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland, noted Navarro’s “rather severe position.” “That zero-sum statement, I have a problem with that,” he told the magazine. “Where’s his proof?”
When I first reached out to Navarro for comment on this story, he offered three names of people he knew in southern California whom he suggested as sources. One was Matt Lawson, a 70-year-old semi-retired private equity investor who has known Navarro since 2004 and is closely aligned with his political beliefs, who described the trade deficit as a “transfer of wealth” and lifted his pant leg to show off red-and-white striped calf socks with “TRUMP” printed down the side. “He’s a very smart individual, and he’s not just book-smart but he’s also very practical,” said Lawson, who holds an MBA in Finance from the University of Chicago. “He certainly understands conventional wisdom really well, but I think he is willing to look beyond it.”
Another, a well-known journalist in the area who did not want to be quoted, said he had no idea why he was chosen—and found it telling that he was—given that he had hardly talked with Navarro since the early 2000s and never knew him well in the first place. Venkatesh was the third.
“I was less likely to dismiss him than the others,” Venkatesh said when I asked why he thought Navarro might have given me his name. “Some people say we need different kinds of people in the school, so he’s one of them. Some people were dismissive. Some people said, ‘Yeah, Peter is like that … That’s just Peter.’”
NOTWITHSTANDING THE SWIMSUIT stunt, the heated 1992 San Diego mayoral race between Navarro and county supervisor Susan Golding mirrored last year’s presidential campaign in striking ways. A brash, politically inexperienced man with a big voice and a provocative style was aiming to defeat the veteran local officeholder as she tried to take advantage of a campaign season many had dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”
A quarter-century apart, both Trump and Navarro waged campaigns focused predominantly on a single economic issue — jobs for Trump; anti-development for Navarro — but both found widespread appeal more generally by vowing to upend the status quo. "She's an incumbent, I'm an outsider—that's what voters will remember,” Navarro said that year, a line that encapsulated his campaign. “She's had her chance. Now it's time for someone else to try."
Navarro’s “managed growth” platform focused largely on blocking developers from taking over San Diego’s greener areas, a position he held even as economists criticized his policy plans and as developers poured money into his rival’s campaign. Hints of Navarro’s comments back then feel like precursors to the trade agenda he has adopted today, including his opposition to NAFTA — which campaign aides said he pejoratively referred to as “Shafta” — and his distaste for proposals that aimed to capitalize on San Diego’s geography by turning it into a global trading city with ties to both Mexico and the Pacific Rim.
"The idea of becoming a nouveau Hong Kong is terrifying," Navarro told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "If we're going to become a hub of international trade, we feel it's necessary to manage growth and attract only the appropriate kinds of business. We don't need to pin our hopes on the Pacific."
Despite winning the jungle primary, which sends the top two candidates to a run-off in the general election regardless of party, Navarro fell short that November by around 15,000 votes. Both he and his campaign attribute the loss largely to the decision to release a nasty, personal attack ad in the final days that faulted his opponent for her husband’s wrongdoings: money laundering that had landed him in jail. The commercial, which aides said featured Golding’s ex-husband behind bars and was played seemingly on repeat leading up to Election Day, ultimately turned voters against him and toward Golding. His approval numbers later dipped lower when his attacks moved Golding to tears in their final televised debate just days before the election.
“I told him, ‘Look at the history of San Diego politics—you cannot attack a woman,’” said Mann, the campaign manager, who said she pushed against the decision to release what she described as a “horrible television commercial.” During the debate, she added, “my husband and I were standing there like, ‘Well, it was a nice campaign while it lasted.’ It was his race to lose, and he did, because he’s such a nasty guy.”
Four years later, and with another two local campaigns behind him, Navarro set his sights on a higher office: the U.S. House of Representatives. Then-President Bill Clinton’s coattails and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s intense unpopularity were both helping shape 1996 up to be a good year for Democrats—particularly, party leaders hoped, in San Diego, where Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray had won his seat by fewer than 5,000 votes two years earlier. So after previously running as a Republican and an Independent, Navarro entered the 1996 race as a Democrat.
Given the district’s potential to swing from Republican to Democratic control, the race garnered significant national attention. Then-first lady Hillary Clinton flew cross-country to campaign for Navarro, who boarded his own flight to Chicago that summer to speak at the Democratic National Convention. The spotlight should have been helpful, but Navarro—who was already well-known and not particularly well-liked in the district—didn’t need it. Instead, the race seemed to bring greater scrutiny to a man who floundered under it.
Part of that was due to his propensity for mudslinging, a reputation he tried to outrun in that House race, his fourth campaign launched in about as many years in the district. He later wrote that despite telling himself he was going to run a cleaner campaign in 1996, he grew to have “absolutely no moral qualms about throwing mud at an opponent—but only if they throw mud at me first.”
“I still have some principles,” Navarro wrote in 1998 in “San Diego Confidential,” a sort of manifesto he wrote reflecting on his campaigns. “But not as many as you might think because I don’t have any concern at all about making stuff up about my opponent that isn’t exactly true — I know that bastard running against me doesn’t have any scruples either (at least, this is my experience to date). So you see how far I’ve sunk. And have I not just proven to you beyond any reasonable doubt that we are descended from the apes?”
The late Washington Post columnist David Broder pinpointed the race as one of three that should have flipped but likely wasn’t going to due to “eccentric factors.” In the San Diego County race, that meant Navarro himself, who Broder dismissed as “just not a credible messenger.”
Other analysts and consultants on the national stage had similar reactions to Navarro, some of whom remembered him vividly despite the long passage of time. “Since I started the newsletter in ‘84, I met with hundreds of candidates,” said Charlie Cook, the consultant behind the Cook Political Report, who interviewed Navarro alongside Stu Rothenberg, another longtime political consultant. “And if I had to name the half-dozen most obnoxious candidates I’d ever met with, Peter would be on this list.”
His increasingly nasty campaign style, paired with what aides described as a willingness to smear his opponents and say whatever he thought would be popular, eventually led to Navarro’s departure after “he had really exhausted himself in San Diego politics,” said Lisa Ross, who worked on a trio of Navarro’s campaigns as press secretary and communications director.
“It became clear to some of us at a certain point that Peter was never going to make a deal. He was always going to have his heels dug in the sand,” she added. “I lost confidence that he would ever be an effective public official at the end of the day.”
THE TOPIC OF trade had obsessed Donald Trump for years before he catapulted to unexpected success during last year’s presidential campaign. In his 2000 book The America We Deserve, Trump wrote that if he ever made it to the White House, the person he would put in charge of U.S. trade policy would be… himself. “I would take personal charge of negotiations,” Trump wrote. “Our trading partners would have to sit across the table from Donald Trump, and I guarantee you the rip-off of the United States would end.”
His lawyers had looked into it, and the president did indeed have the authority to appoint himself chief trade negotiator, Trump wrote at the time. Or, as Trump found out nearly two decades later, he could simply find a surrogate.
“He’s a carbon copy of Trump, straight up,” Cheng, the UCI student, said of Navarro.
“So many parallels between these two people,” said Ross, the former press secretary.
“There’s a lot of bluster with the president, and there’s a lot of exaggeration, and no sense of self-doubt or, in my mind, I don’t see much introspection. I don’t see a sense of humor, never see any self-deprecating comments,” said Rothenberg, the political consultant. “So that fits with my recollection of Peter Navarro.”
All of which may not quite explain how Navarro made the leap from West Coast obscurity to West Wing prominence, but does suggest why he has been considered a good fit. He and Trump first came into contact when Navarro read that Trump had listed his book “The Coming China Wars” among his top 20 favorite books on China out of “hundreds” he had read. "I know the Chinese. I've made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind," Trump said in the same 2011 interview, underscoring a years-long interest in the country that centers on the zero-sum notion that when China wins, the United States loses. Later, Trump watched Navarro’s documentary, “DEATH BY CHINA,” and praised it as “right on”—a review that remains at the top of the film’s website today.
Navarro joined the campaign last summer, and as an advisor he co-authored one of the most comprehensive white papers released so far detailing Trump’s economic agenda, which painted a bleak picture of the current economic state of affairs and pinned the blame largely on “bad deals” like NAFTA and China’s entry into the WTO. The paper blasts Beijing as the primary source for the decline in manufacturing jobs, and criticizes China for manipulating its currency—an accusation that the U.S. Treasury Department once leveled against the country but has not carried out since 1994—while also offering lavish promises, including that Trump’s trade reforms would boost government revenue by $1.7 trillion over the next decade, offsetting the revenue losses from his proposed tax cuts.
Today, Navarro is settling into his role at the brand-new National Trade Council as its director, a heretofore nonexistent role that many expect puts Navarro in position to remain a key economic whisperer to the president. And although he won’t be U.S. trade representative — that slot went to Robert Lighthizer, a veteran Washington trade attorney — he has already caused waves in his first two months in the job, roiling international markets over comments that Germany has been using a “grossly undervalued” euro to “exploit” the United States and European partners, and raising eyebrows when he said the administration was looking to unwind and reshore the intricate global supply chain. Concern about Navarro has reportedly split Trump's trade advisors, according to a recent report in the Financial Times, with a faction led by former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn pushing for a more conventional approach to global trade.
As more of Trump’s Cabinet officials win Senate confirmation and move into their offices, Navarro will have to share responsibility over trade policy with a number of others, but he is still expected to have a seat at the table in upcoming negotiations: over NAFTA, for example, and bilateral trade deals with allies from the United Kingdom to Japan. And as he does, he’ll carry with him his Trumpian worldview, as well as his Trumpian style.
“They’re both outspoken and sometimes a bit tactless,” said Bromiley, the professor. “But hell, Trump’s made being tactless kind of a calling card.”