President-elect Donald Trump’s Thursday announcement that professor and economist Dr. Peter Navarro will serve as one of his key economic advisors has been anticipated — sometimes with horror — for months. “Should Donald Trump overcome the odds against him now and be elected President,” wrote Adam Davidson in The New Yorker in October, “Navarro would likely become the single most powerful economic adviser in the United States.”
And here we are, just weeks away from Trump’s inauguration, with Navarro at the head of the new White House National Trade Council, which aims to “shrink our trade deficit, expand our growth, and help stop the exodus of jobs from our shores.” He may not ultimately be as powerful as Davidson thinks — the new council will have little staff or budget, some observers have noted — but he seems to have Trump’s ear, and that might be power enough.
So who is Navarro, and what can we actually expect from him? The simplest, most digestible, and most revealing answer comes in an unlikely form: a low-budget and nominally nonpartisan documentary called Death By China, written, directed and produced by Navarro himself. As a film critic, I found it an appalling cinematic experience. But it’s a brutally effective, if unsubtle, 79 minutes of propaganda — which might explain why Trump liked it so much.
Navarro adapted Death By China from his 2011 book of the same name, which argues that China — through a combination of unfair trade practices and low-quality, globally exported products — is becoming “the planet’s most efficient assassin.” The film was technically released in theaters (three, to be exact), and grossed a little under $40,000. From there, Navarro took it on the festival circuit, holding screenings and Q&As in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati and Birmingham. The critics who bothered to review it were largely underwhelmed: The Hollywood Reporter deemed it “astonishingly-heavy handed,” the Village Voice criticized the “hysterical rhetoric,” and The A.V. Club called it “the documentary equivalent of a raving street-corner derelict.”
On its official YouTube channel, Death By China is described as “one of the most popular documentaries on Netflix” for the past three years (though it’s unclear how that conclusion was reached, since Netflix doesn’t release its viewership figures). The documentary isn’t available on Netflix anymore, but back in April, the entire film was uploaded to YouTube, alongside a plea to “please share this film far and wide.”
Within its first five minutes, Death By China lays out the stakes: 57,000 American factories closed, 25 million Americans can’t find “a decent job,” and the United States owes $3 trillion to China. The roots of our alleged economic woes, Navarro argues, can be traced back to 2001, when the United States enthusiastically endorsed Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
Navarro attempts to prove this point with an array of cherry-picked talking heads, a series of unenlightening man-on-the-street interviews, and — most strikingly — some computer-animated sequences designed to dramatize Navarro’s argument. In one, a knife bearing the label “Made in China” is plunged into the center of the United States, covering the lower half of the country in a sea of blood. In another, missiles of “currency manipulation” and “illegal export subsidies” are fired from cannons and dropped from planes, leaving American cities in rubble. Navarro structures his film around China’s “Weapons of Job Destruction.” Everything is cast in the violent, overheated rhetoric of a war with China — a war Navarro argues we’re losing.
These are all standard tactics in the agitprop documentary playbook: Present one side of a political argument with a dizzying array of semi-credentialed talking heads, leaving dissenting voices on the floor of the editing bay. When your logic is lacking, appeal to emotion instead, depicting derelict factories or unhappy-looking American workers. And, because audiences have been conditioned to expect political documentaries to entertain as well as inform, leaven all the messaging with simplistic cartoons, jaunty music and the occasional joke.
Though Navarro is personally responsible for basically everything you see in the film, he enlists the sonorous baritone of Martin Sheen — America’s favorite fictional president — to deliver his talking points. (Yes, the same Martin Sheen who recently appeared in videos urging members of the Electoral College to buck the will of voters and vote against Trump.) Navarro himself appears only briefly, laying out what he views as a practical guide for what the average American can do to combat this threat. “Every time a consumer walks into a Walmart, the first thing they have to do is be aware enough to look for the label. Then, when they pick up that good and it says, ‘Made in China,’ I want them to think, ‘Hmm. It might either break down, or it could kill me, number one. This thing, if I buy it, might cost me, or someone in my family or my friends, their job. Lastly, ‘Hey — if I buy this, that money is gonna go over to help finance what is essentially one of the most rapid military build-ups of a totalitarian regime since… when? The ’30s. I mean, make no mistake about that.”
But beyond this appeal to each individual consumer, Death By China doesn’t actually propose any concrete solutions to the problems Navarro presents — just the standard “spread the word and complain to your congressman.” Now that Navarro is in the president-elect’s ear, with the theoretical power to turn this overheated rhetoric into actual U.S. policy, we’re likely to see the actual, real-world consequences of his beliefs.
It is, frankly, easy to see why Navarro’s film was embraced by Trump, who described it as both “right on” and “important” in a blurb proudly posted on Death By China’s website. Death By China’s argument is simplistic, and therefore easy to grasp, because it reduces China into the catch-all boogeyman behind our economic woes. Even more importantly, it scapegoats China in a way that enables the easy campaign-trail rhetoric designed to win over voters who would rather pin the hard, complicated realities of changing technology and shifts in global trade on a single, nefarious foreign agent.
This impulse is best demonstrated by “Land of Trade and Greed,” a song Navarro wrote for the movie, which demonizes China from the perspective of a blue-collar industrial worker: “It’s not me but my family I wish to feed / Not much, we got simple needs / Too bad they sent our jobs away / As the CEOs get richer / And our jobs all move offshore.”
And when you put it in those terms, it’s hard to argue against Death By China. Who wouldn’t sympathize with a blue-collar manufacturer trying to feed his family, or rail against a CEO so eager to pad the bottom line that she doesn’t care hurting individual working-class Americans and America’s economy as a whole? Whose heart wouldn’t be moved by images of Chinese workers toiling in dismal-looking factories, or news stories about the effects of harmful products, since recalled, that were manufactured in China? What we need to resolve these problems, argues one talking head near the end of the movie, is “a Tea Party that’s completely divorced of left or right. A Tea Party that differentiates between right and wrong.”
Some of these problems are real, and Navarro is clearly both sincere and well-intentioned. But the problem, of course, is that Death By China also set the terms on which it builds all these arguments, and the reality of the situation is more complicated than the grim picture painted by Navarro. U.S. manufacturing is on the rise, and so are U.S. manufacturing wages. Offshoring is actually down, and “reshoring” — the process of bringing manufacturing jobs back into the United States — has been happening for years, led by companies like General Electric and Walmart, who are both demonized in the film. In practical terms, it seems like the best way to continue rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing base is to invest in education, enabling a new generation to develop the skills that will make them knowledgeable, versatile workers in an industry that increasingly requires complicated and detail-oriented tasks.
In short: Navarro’s approach is overly simplistic, backward-looking, and ultimately dangerous to the U.S. economy, since it so clearly risks retaliation from China. It’s one thing to advocate a sharply defined, nuance-free position when you’re just a college professor trying to get your argument across. But Navarro’s going to be in the White House now, and he may find that dealing with the reality of China is a bit more complex. The United States and China trade some $700 billion in goods and services between them each year–much of it stuff Americans couldn’t afford to buy otherwise.
And China can play this game, too. Already, the country’s state-run press has greeted Navarro’s arrival with alarm. “His appointment is another sign of the confrontational approach the incoming Trump administration seems intent on taking in relations with China,” read an editorial in China Daily. “[This is] no laughing matter.” The Global Times, a hypernationalist tabloid, called on China’s leaders to “discard any illusions and make full preparations for any offensive move by the Trump government,” adding a pointed warning: “The U.S. can no longer push China around today.”
“I urge you to see it,” concludes Trump’s blurb for Death By China. And on that, Trump and I agree. I think you should see Death By China. You might not learn much about the reality of the complicated and ever-shifting economic ties between Washington and Beijing, but you will learn a lot about the direction in which Trump’s policy toward China is likely to head—and about the man likely to play such a vital part in altering the fate of the global economy.
Maybe the book is better?
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