Opinion writer

Depending on your perspective, the high-fiving and back-slapping at the White House celebrating passage of the Republicans’ tax bill will either be run in GOP celebratory ads next year or used to shame GOP lawmakers who ran up the deficit mostly to benefit wealthy people (especially those among them who invest in real estate) and corporations.

Former vice president Joe Biden’s chief economist thinks “there’s something hopeful going on, and that is this: the people are onto them. People know that you don’t really help them by giving corporations big tax breaks. They know the Republicans are doing their donors’ bidding, not their constituents’. They see through the Republicans’ ridiculously cynical pivot to once again worrying about the deficit, but only as a rationale to cut programs people value.”

In any case, Trump surely owns it all — the stock market he brags about, the economy he inherited and has tipped further toward the wealthiest Americans, the movement of jobs overseas (which critics say his plan will promote) and Trumpcare (Obamacare was “repealed,” he bragged, in extolling the repeal of the individual mandate). A stock market dip, a return to middling growth, yawning wealth disparity, more jobs shipped overseas or accelerated collapse of the Obamacare exchanges all will be blamed on him. It won’t be the media or the Democrats or recalcitrant GOP moderates (of which there appear to be none) who will be tagged for economic or health-care ills.

Ironically, or tragically, Trump and the GOP played the game they decried — ignoring the day-to-day concerns of the “forgotten man and woman,” while lining the pockets of well-connected corporations and pass-through real estate moguls. Like mortgage derivative brokers before the 2008 crash, they are giddy with new riches. They confuse the health of Wall Street with the health of Main Street and fail to see how the financial edifice they constructed could come tumbling down.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute warns:

National debt becomes a more serious problem for the U.S. with each passing year, and is primarily driven by spending on middle-class entitlement programs and interest payments on the debt itself. By adding over $1 trillion in new debt to the $11 trillion already projected to be added over the coming decade, the Republican tax law (whatever its merits, some of which are quite strong) makes this problem worse.

So Republicans have not really changed the fortunes of the white working class in dying Rust Belt towns and languishing rural America — although they’ve limited opportunities for future generations. In the myth of the “average” worker, they’ve negated the real suffering of those at the bottom by balancing off gains at the top. This is precisely what fuels the populist revolt against a “rigged” system in which the rich get richer.

The Trump GOP in fact rigged the system to the detriment of those who thrilled to its populist propaganda. Republicans made insurance in the individual market more expensive, gave billions back to corporations with no guarantee of better or higher-paying jobs (especially in the country’s interior), forgot about an infrastructure bill and set up new tax dodges for the Trump clan and their Mar-a-Lago partying guests. They have not addressed the mismatch between open jobs and available skilled workers, instead pacifying the base with the notion that rounding up and expelling illegal immigrants will somehow allow them to get well-paying manufacturing jobs. (Don’t try to figure it out; it’s hocus-pocus cooked up by those who cling to the “lump of labor” fallacy.)

Meanwhile, the administration has done little to fund anti-addiction programs and, by doubling the standard deduction, has made charitable giving a lot less attractive for Americans. Republicans roll their eyes at the notion that 13 million fewer people will have insurance coverage. So, when the dust settles, will there be more suffering or less after the impact of Trump’s policies are felt? Will the Ohio Rust Belt towns come back, or will they shrivel as their inhabitants literally die off?

What would a humane, sound approach have been to addressing the real needs of working-class Americans? Strain has a few ideas:

Low rates of work-force participation and sluggish wage growth are also important challenges to confront. Guided by their belief that public policy ought to build ladders of opportunity, conservatives should push to expand earnings subsidies to help pull people into the work force. Relocation assistance targeted on individuals who want to work, have been out of work for some time, and lack the resources to move to a city with a better labor market would also offer them neither a handout nor a cold shoulder, but a hand up. Expanding apprenticeship programs would build skills and raise wages, but would allow the market to determine what skills are taught rather than rely on the judgment of bureaucrats.

State and local governments should take steps to reduce commute times, which have become a barrier to employment in many sprawling cities. Zoning regulation in many cities often makes it harder for workers to afford to live near good jobs. And increasingly over the past few decades, occupational licenses have been issued not to protect the health and safety of consumers but rather to protect established businesses. This is a prime target for deregulation.

But guess what? There’s less money after the mammoth tax giveaway available to do all that, and GOP hostility toward government (except when rearranging the tax code) makes it generally unwilling to pursue any of these approaches. By limiting state and local tax deductibility, Republicans have made it that much harder for localities to experiment and invest in these sorts of policies. Moreover, in its xenophobic trance, the GOP envisions cutting the number of legal immigrants, thereby depriving the United States of workers needed to pay for entitlements and new sources of entrepreneurship. That won’t help bring thriving industries to the Midwest, no matter how many fear-mongering speeches Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions give.

If a rising tide raised all boats, Trump wouldn’t have been elected. Now that he has been and seeks to widen the gap between rich and poor, he’s betting that voters, just like his Trump University customers, can be conned. Somehow I don’t think that’s likely. The 2018 midterms will be enlightening.