Though he no longer teaches there, UC Irvine still lists Peter Navarro–the architect of President Donald Trump’s stupid, ruinous trade war with China–as a Professor Emeritus at its Paul Merage School of Business. When he got the job advising Trump back in 2016, this UCI news release called Navarro “an innovator in online education.” His faculty bio paints him as quite the expert on trade and international finance.
“Professor Navarro’s unique and internationally recognized expertise lies in his ‘big picture’ application of a highly sophisticated but easily accessible macroeconomic analysis of the business environment and financial markets for investors and corporate executives,” states Navarro’s UCI faculty bio. The bio also notes that Navarro has written 10 books, including Death by China, Seeds of Destruction, Always a Winner and The Coming China Wars.
It’s these books–especially Death by China–that landed Navarro back in the news recently. Not because they’re intelligent, thoughtful examinations of economic policy (they’re not) but because they often contain quotes from an economist named Ron Vara. Vara, who appears frequently in Navarro’s books with pithy, often combative quotes about China, is a complete fabrication, according to an Oct. 15 article in The Chronicle Review.
“I called the co-author of Death by China, Greg Autry, to find out what he knew about the mysterious Ron Vara,” reporter Tom Bartlett wrote in the Chronicle piece. “Autry was a student of Navarro’s at Irvine and is now an assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California. He was playfully cagey at first but eventually came clean. ‘You’re not going to find Ron Vara,’ he said. He described Vara as one of a ‘number of Easter eggs’ in the book meant to lighten the tone. ‘We do try to have a little bit of fun,’ he said. ‘If anybody wants to not enjoy that, they’re welcome to.'”
Keep in mind that throughout his books, Navarro included biographical details concerning Vara (“struggling” Harvard grad student in the 1980s, Gulf War veteran and so forth) that are completely fictional.
This, in supposedly non-fiction books about trade policy and economics.
Navarro’s reaction to being found out? It was all a gag.
“While he declined to speak on the record, he did send a statement in which he called Ron Vara a ‘whimsical device and pen name I’ve used throughout the years for opinions and purely entertainment value, not as a source of fact,'” Bartlett wrote. “He compared the Ron Vara character to ‘Alfred Hitchcock appearing briefly in cameo in his movies’ and wrote that it’s ‘refreshing that somebody finally figured out an inside joke that has been hiding in plain sight for years.'”
Given that “Ron Vara” is an anagram of “Navarro,” it does seem odd that Navarro was able to carry this on for two decades, or more. Then again, there’s also this quaint tradition that stuff that appears in books labeled “non-fiction” is, itself, non-fiction. Of course, we also shouldn’t forget that Trump himself mastered the art of faking sources long before he ever got to be president. In fact, during the 1980s, Trump sometimes pretended to be a Trump Organization official named John Barron while speaking with reporters.
A spokesperson for UCI said the university had no comment for this story.
Click here to read the full Navarro article in The Chronicle Review.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.