Partway through John Oliver’s main story on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, the host showed a bombastically wrong-headed clip from a documentary called Death By China. Filled with ominously hyperbolic narration (Martin Sheen, c’mon guy) and simplistic, ineptly fear-mongering animations (America is stabbed, right in the heartland, by a murder-knife emblazoned with “Made In China”), the documentary is the sort of hyperventilating, fact-averse nonsense the guy you least want to talk to demands you watch right now. Oliver even quotes Scott Tobias’ 2012 A.V. Club review of the film, calling the Death By China, “the documentary equivalent of a raving street-corner derelict.”
Fun stuff. But why devote so much comic vitriol to a little-seen, critically lambasted, fact-challenged piece of bargain-basement economic propaganda? Well—and try to conceal your shock here—the director of that film, and author of best-sellers about China the global economic boogeyman, is one Peter Navarro, currently head of Donald Trump’s Office Of Trade And Manufacturing Policy. Yup. And not only that, as Oliver reveals, but Navarro is also essentially the only person propping up Trump’s ongoing trade war with China, even though literally no other reputable economists in the country view Navarro as anything but a joke. (Asked to provide two economists who back up his hyperbolic take on Chinese-American trade by The New Yorker, Navarro gave two whole names—one who refuted Navarro’s central premise, and the other a blogger without an economics degree who, Oliver shows, has inserted his own online author photo sideways.)
So, we’re fucked on the trade front, too. Especially as Oliver presents evidence of how clearly Donald Trump misunderstands even the most basic concepts (trade deficits, economics, tariffs, math, international trade agreements, facts) upon which he’s waging his trade war. Armed with clips of Trump doing lots of funny voices while claiming “Trade—ugh—I’m gonna do so good,” and promising to tell China “Listen you motherfuckers, I’m gonna tax you 25 percent,” Oliver went on to show how world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and others have patiently tried to dumb down the core concepts of why what Trump’s doing is fundamentally, childishly idiotic—complete with colorful flash cards and props—all to no avail. Picture a mirror image of that scene in Trading Places where the Duke Brothers condescendingly explain commodities trading to Billy Ray Valentine, except here it’s Merkel shooting the camera a “can you believe this shit?” look.
It all brings us back to Navarro, who—and again try to feign surprise—was found by presidential son-in-law and “nothing boy” (as Oliver dubs him) Jared Kushner searching for best-selling economists on Amazon, and who views his job as “to try to provide the underlying analytics that conform [Trump’s] intuition.” As Oliver explains, that is “simply terrifying,” since—in addition to that being how advisors to actual authoritarians work—Donald Trump’s intuition means his tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum will actually wipe out hundreds of thousands more American jobs than they create. Oliver conceded that, even with plenty of sex jokes and funny, insulting nicknames, his report is far too complicated to hold Trump’s attention. So he put together a Death By China-style mini-documentary, complete with gobs of animated blood and a scary voice-guy telling Trump how what he’s doing is the economic equivalent of hurling a razor-edged boomerang, right at dick level.