The policies of the Trump Administration are being influenced by the view that international trade is a zero sum game, where whomever receives the most money is the winner at the expense of whomever receives the most goods. Under this line of thinking, which sometimes goes under the name “mercantilism”, policies are beneficial if they increase the amount of money coming into the country relative to the amount of money going out of the country. As discussed below, it’s the wrong way to look at the world.
Another way of framing the mercantilist position is that the winner is the one who ends up with the larger amount of the medium of exchange and the loser is the one who ends up with the larger amount of real wealth. For reasons we’ll get into in a moment there are actually no winners and losers, but if it were true that one side was getting the better deal then surely it would be the one that ended up with the most real wealth; especially these days, when the medium of exchange is created out of nothing by the banking system.
Also, it’s important to understand that countries don’t trade with each other. For example, the US doesn’t trade with China. What we mean is that a country is not an economic entity that buys and sells. Instead, individuals in one country trade with individuals in another country and in each transaction both sides believe that they are benefiting (otherwise the transaction wouldn’t happen). While it is technically possible to lump together all the transactions undertaken by the individuals in one region and arrive at the conclusion that ‘we’ have a trade deficit or ‘we’ have a trade surplus, in the real world there is no ‘we’ when it comes to trade.
Unfortunately, however, governments pay attention to the meaningless lumping-together of millions of individual transactions, and if the result happens to be what is commonly called a deficit then the government will often conclude that it should place obstacles in the way of many transactions. You may think that you are benefiting from a deal with a foreign seller, but according to the government you are creating a problem for the collective ‘we’ and must be hindered or stopped.