The 20th century gave us the Peter Principle: in a hierarchy, you’ll get promoted until you reach your level of incompetence.
The 21st century gives us the Peter Navarro Principle: if you’re relentlessly angry and accusatory, your incompetence will be no obstacle to your rise.
Peter Navarro is a failed California politician who now, 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 crisis since World War II is a nightmarish lesson about the sorts of people who prosper when the national conversation becomes dominated by accusation.
Navarro’s career is often recounted as a mystery: how did a progressive Democrat from San Diego turn into a leading Trumpist? But Navarro’s life is not really mysterious—it’s the story of consistent devotion to personal attacks.
Navarro, an East Coast kid, 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 soon made himself the area’s most prominent NIMBY, forming . Prevent Los Angelization Now, which attacked anyone who dared to build anything.
He might have won high office—if not for his addiction to accusation. In 1992, with a huge lead in the race for San Diego mayor, Navarro foolishly attacked Susan Golding over her ex-husband’s conviction on drug and money laundering charges. The attack backfired, with Golding crying in the debate and coming back to win the race.
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. The rejections spoke volumes. San Diego, a sunny place, elected divisive people, from Pete Wilson to Bob Filner, but couldn’t stand Navarro Larry Remer, Navarro’s campaign consultant, recently called his former client “the biggest a–hole I’ve ever known.”
True to form, Navarro did not stay classy in defeat. Instead, he published an accusatory book, San Diego Confidential that recounted every accusation from his campaign while commenting on the looks and sex lives of various San Diego figures. Navarro even boasts about his reputation as “the cruelest and meanest son of a bitch who ever ran for public office in San Diego.”
Navarro gave up elected politics in the 2000s, and began publishing finger-pointing books with names like Death by China. His critiques went beyond criticism of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses into racist claims.
Books were peppered with “expert” quotes (“You’ve got to be nuts to eat Chinese food”) purportedly from a businessman named Ron Vara, who Navarro made up as an anagram of his own name.
The books, like his campaigns, weren’t taken all that seriously. 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 to trolls and right-wing media. Navarro soon came to the notice of Donald Trump, who hired him as a campaign advisor and then a top trade official in the administration.
In the White House, Navarro was at first sidelined by mainstream 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’s skill with accusation had left him unable to ramp up a large cooperation effort. The administration’s failure to deliver supplies has left states to fend for themselves.
The San Diegan still made time for accusation. Reports surfaced of Navarro launching a bitter personal attack on Dr. Tony Fauci Navarro also publicly advanced the dubious claim that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine would work as a COVID-19 treatment.
Perhaps you cling to the romantic notion that karma will catch up with a man such as Navarro. Or perhaps you believe that other officials, or even the media, will hold him accountable. Maybe in another country, or at another time in the life of this country. But not now, and not here, in the United States of Accusation.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.