Donald Trump made his opposition to much of America’s international trade policy a central theme in his presidential campaign, and his position almost certainly played a major role in his victory in key industrial states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But the public now seems largely opposed to his recent tariffs against our major trading partners.
It is possible to make sense of these seemingly contradictory facts.
First, most people are not policy wonks. They have day jobs and, when they get back from work, they often have family responsibilities, so getting the news means hearing a few tidbits on the television or radio, or possibly skimming an article in a newspaper or online.
This means that the vast majority of people only have the most general understanding of trade and trade policy. In the election of 2016, there was a widely held view that trade policy had hurt many people, which was why both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most important trade deal then on the table. (Trump pulled out of the deal shortly after his inauguration.)
People were not wrong to hold a negative view of trade policy: Over the prior four decades, it had put U.S. manufacturing workers in direct competition with their low-paid counterparts in the developing world by reducing tariffs and other barriers that had caused foreign-made products to cost more. The predicted and actual effect of this policy was the loss of millions of…