The Man Who Cried Wolf

Peter Navarro, one of President Trump’s top trade advisers, wrote a memo in late January 2020 warning of potentially dire consequences for American citizens and the U.S. economy if the federal government didn’t swiftly implement active “containment” measures, including a ban on travel from China, to stem the growth of the COVID-19 virus. When Axios revealed the memo earlier this week, the news rocked Washington: Think of the immeasurable pain and uncertainty that might have been avoided if Trump and his other advisers had just heeded Navarro’s warning. The only problem was, nobody did.

In isolation, the White House’s inaction appears to be a major policy blunder, possibly responsible for needless human and economic casualties. In context, however, much of the blame shifts to Navarro himself, and to his fellow economic nationalists in the White House. Their constant reliance on “national security” and “national emergency” hysterics caused others in the Trump administration (and the country more broadly) to tune them out. As one White House adviser put it, “The January travel memo struck me as an alarmist attempt to bring attention to Peter’s anti-China agenda while presenting an artificially limited range of policy options.” In short, when the real China emergency arrived, nobody paid attention to the guy who spent the last three years running around the West Wing yelling that everything China touched was an emergency. In so doing, America lost valuable time and, of course, much more.

It’s a sad episode—and one that reveals a fundamental flaw in the nationalist mantra that “economic security is national security”: it turns out that, when everything’s a national security threat, sooner or later nothing is—not even the real one. 

That mantra is actually the title of a 2018 op-ed by Navarro, the White House’s most famous China hawk and the author of such subtle pre-White House works as Death by China, Seeds of Destruction, and The Coming China Wars. Navarro’s talent for finding trade-related crises also is not limited to China. Among the other “national security” threats he’s identified in recent years are: 1) overall and bilateral trade deficits; 2) foreign direct investment into the United States; 3) agricultural imports; and 4) “outsourcing.” While in the White House, Navarro was also the author of an infamous Cabinet-level presentation tying—without any empirical support—U.S. trade agreements like NAFTA to not only economic calamities like lost jobs and closed factories, but also social ones like abortion, low fertility, spousal abuse, divorce, crime, drug abuse, and even death.

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