Commentary: Trump sticks to his gut on China tariffs. That’s terrible

FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo, Mike Starkey offloads soybeans from his combine as he harvests his crops in Brownsburg, Ind. The escalating trade war between the U.S. and China is causing anxiety among rural farmers and bankers. Upper Midwest soybean farmer Jamie Beyer says these are days of "a little bit of panic." Minnesota agriculture lender Kent Thiesse says most farmers were able to get financing for spring planting, but more federal aid might be needed to head off "serious losses" this fall. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

The current trade flap with China is a great reminder of one of my favorite themes: why presidents should not be guided by what they think is right.

That certainly seems to be what's going on here. Donald Trump's commitment to tariffs, and more generally to zero-sum mercantilist thinking about trade, is very much personal, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O'Brien explains.

But whatever Trump thinks, he’s hardly a serious expert on international trade - as demonstrated by his explanations of how tariffs work. That’s not unusual, however. Most presidents are true experts on few, if any, policy questions. Probably the wonkiest of the modern presidents were Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and even they were essentially well-informed generalists.

(Could Trump know better, and just be misstating who pays for tariffs be deliberate political spin? It’s certainly possible. It wouldn’t be the first time a president did such a thing. But there’s a fair amount of evidence that he believes what he’s saying. The best evidence, however, is the policies themselves, which mainly make sense only if Trump really believes trade - and tariffs - work the way he thinks they do, and not how economists understand them.)

When it comes to policy, presidents need to know enough to be able to ask good questions and to recognize nonsense, but anything else is asking too much. There are simply too many topics, with too much specialized knowledge, for anyone to really be an expert in climate, and advanced flight systems, and soybeans, and health insurance, and China's foreign policy, and the thousands of other things that come across the president's desk in a typical week. So trusting a president's instincts would mean trusting an amateur. It's a good way for things to go wrong.

What's more, we shouldn't expect presidents to be experts in the other sense of "what they think is right" - morality and ethics. This is one where the popular prejudice is probably correct: Politics, and the ambition necessary to reach the White House, are not really incubators of morality. I'm not sure I would endorse what seems to be the "Game of Thrones" view that only an amoral monster can reach the top, but neither do I think that there's any reason to believe that democratic elections select for a keen ethical sense.

What presidents should be good at - what democratic politics usually do select for - is expertise at politics. The best politicians, presidents included, have a keen sense of how to build coalitions. They are good at assessing which policy positions can be used to advance their influence because they build alliances, and which should be avoided because they trigger strong opposition from important factions. Presidents should be able to assess, as Richard Neustadt said, which policies will “work” in the sense of helping their political prospects and which won’t, all of which comes from having advanced skills in reading clues contained in the reactions of various groups and their leaders.

Another part of being unusually skilled in politics is being good at representation. That involves really understanding the promises, implicit and explicit, made during the campaign; knowing how they apply to the various challenges that occur when governing; and then understanding how to explain governing actions in terms of one's original promises. Promises constrain presidents and other elected officials, but it's up to the politician how to interpret campaign promises and act on them in ways that make constituents feel represented. Again, it takes real skill to read signals sent by voters, organized groups, and political actors about what policy choices will destroy trust by breaking promises, and which will not.

Bad presidents, at least since Woodrow Wilson, have turned that around and believed that they had a mystical connection to voters in which — surprise! — the people at large all support whatever policy ideas the president thinks are best. Either they believe they are listening to the voters when they’re just listening to themselves, or they mistakenly believe that the fact of their election means that voters actively supported every one of their policy positions. The result: They don’t learn from voters. They may even wind up, as Jimmy Carter did, preaching to them.

Early in Trump's presidency, I thought there was a chance that his basic indifference to policy in many areas might really give him some valuable flexibility. Instead, in most areas he has just become passive. He has not been indifferent to trade policy, nor has he been flexible. Mostly he's just following his own sense of what's right. Meanwhile, he's never really learned how to pick up on policy cues from organized groups, and while he's good at interacting with the audiences at his rallies, he's never even tried to expand that skill to encompass anything more than his strongest supporters.

Jonathan Bernstein taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.