Vara makes frequent cameos in the books of Peter Navarro, a White House adviser who is often referred to as Trump’s “China muse.” Before joining the White House, Navarro was a professor of economics and public policy at the University of California at Irvine and the author of books like
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Vara makes frequent cameos in the books of Peter Navarro, a White House adviser who is often referred to as Trump’s “China muse.” Before joining the White House, Navarro was a professor of economics and public policy at the University of California at Irvine and the author of books like Death by China: Confronting the Dragon — A Global Call to Action and The Coming China Wars: Where They Will Be Fought and How They Can Be Won (FT Press). He’s since become one of Trump’s most dogged defenders, telling CNN recently that “I am never disappointed in my president.”
Trump seems to have faith in Navarro, too. The Wall Street Journal reported in August that when the president decided to impose tariffs on China, the only adviser in favor of the plan was Navarro.
China scholars and fellow economists tend to be less enthused. Navarro doesn’t have a background in Chinese studies, doesn’t speak the language, and reportedly made his first trip to the country only last year. Justin Wolfers, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, once wrote that Navarro “stands so far outside the mainstream that he endorses few of the key tenets of the profession.”
Tessa Morris-Suzuki views Navarro’s rhetoric on China with alarm. An emeritus professor of Japanese and Korean history at the Australian National University, she has been working on an essay examining the heated language that Navarro employs, noting its similarity to talk of a “yellow peril” at the turn of the 20th century.
In her research, she kept running across a name she didn’t recognize: Ron Vara. Navarro has quoted Vara a dozen or so times in six books, usually as an epigraph before a chapter. In Death by China, published in 2011, Vara offers this sweeping assessment of the country’s roughly 1.4 billion people: “Only the Chinese can turn a leather sofa into an acid bath, a baby crib into a lethal weapon, and a cellphone battery into heart-piercing shrapnel.”
So who is Ron Vara? He didn’t seem to exist except in the work of Peter Navarro. The most information Morris-Suzuki could find came from Navarro’s 2001 book, If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks (McGraw-Hill). In that book, which lays out Navarro’s plan for how to profit by paying attention to bad news, the reader learns that Vara was a “struggling doctoral student in economics” at Harvard in the mid-1980s, slogging away on a thesis about utilities regulation.
Morris-Suzuki, now in full detective mode, sent emails to some colleagues at Harvard, but no one could turn up any record of Vara.
While Ron Vara appears not to have attended Harvard in the 1980s, Navarro did. He was a doctoral student in economics who published research on, as it happens, utilities regulation. Not all of Vara’s biography lines up with Navarro’s (Ron Vara, for example, was a military reservist during the first Gulf War, back when Navarro was a 40-something economics professor), but there was enough overlap to arouse suspicion.
And there was another tip-off: “Ron Vara” is an anagram of “Navarro.”
Those who know Navarro well, Autry says, were fully aware that Ron Vara was a phony source who often popped up in his books. He said Vara was Navarro’s “alter ego,” an “everyman character” who dispenses cutesy business aphorisms as well as dire warnings about Chinese food.
Another of Navarro’s co-authors, however, was unaware of Ron Vara’s fictional status. Vara is quoted in Seeds of Destruction: Why the Path to Economic Ruin Runs Through Washington, and How to Reclaim American Prosperity (FT Press, 2010), written by Navarro and Glenn Hubbard, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia University and dean emeritus of the business school. Asked via email whether he knew that Navarro had inserted a fictional character, and whether doing so was OK with him, Hubbard replied “No and no.”
While Ron Vara appears not to have attended Harvard in the 1980s, Navarro did.
What does Peter Navarro have to say about his imaginary friend? I emailed the White House press office and received a phone call from Navarro. 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.”
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.”
The inside joke doesn’t strike Morris-Suzuki as particularly funny. Maybe, she said, Vara began as a whimsical device — though even that’s questionable in books that purport to be nonfiction. But “once he started to be used as a source of fear and loathing about China, and of messages which readers are likely to believe about the dangers of various Chinese products, the joke wore very thin,” she said. She was left “wondering whether there might be other invented sources in Navarro’s work.”
Morris-Suzuki hasn’t stumbled on any more such sources, though she did notice that another quote — “Import from China. Save money. Lose your life” — is credited to Leslie LeBon, about whom the book tells us nothing except her name. A Google search reveals that LeBon is an architect who also is Navarro’s wife.
While it seems that no one picked up on Ron Vara before Morris-Suzuki did, this isn’t the first time Navarro’s books have come in for criticism. Writing in The National Review in 2017, Kevin D. Williamson pointed to uncredited anecdotes that veer close to plagiarism. He also noted a general “sloppiness with sources,” such as citing a 25-year-old report from the RAND Corporation on China’s involvement with Iran as if it were up-to-date.
Still, whatever their faults and fictions, the ideas in Navarro’s books appear to be driving economic policy with the United States’s largest trading partner. And the professor continues to have one very important fan. When Navarro was brought into the administration, in 2016, Trump praised him in a statement, saying that he had read one of the professor’s books on China and was “impressed by the clarity of his arguments and thoroughness of his research.”