The chaotic nightmare in which we now live, optimistic Democrats tell themselves, will be over one day, and not a day too far in the future. This year is almost over, and then we'll be getting ready for the 2018 midterms, and before you know it the next presidential campaign will be underway. Sure, all kinds of mind-bendingly terrible things will happen between now and then, but if we can avoid a nuclear war, President Trump can be shown the door in 2020, and the damage might be minimized. And what's he going to say to the electorate then? I accomplished virtually nothing, everything I promised was a lie, and by the way I'm also the world's most odious human being, so re-elect me? That'll never work.
Unfortunately, there is a way for Trump to get re-elected, and he doesn't have to go that far back to find the model. It's George W. Bush's 2004 campaign.
Bush's approval when he ran for re-election wasn't as low as Trump's is now, but it wasn't great, hovering in the 40s for much of that year. The economy was improving, but the political landscape was dominated by the Iraq War. Most Americans thought the war was going badly, and a growing number believed the U.S. should never have gone there in the first place. Bush had tanked America's image in the world and was the subject of endless mockery from comedians. He was ripe for defeat.
The Democrats, whose hatred for Bush burned with an unquenchable fire, decided to nominate not some flashy newcomer but a safer choice. During the primary campaign, the most compelling argument in favor of John Kerry was, believe it or not, his electability. Few Democrats were in love with him (as many had been for a time with Howard Dean), but they saw him as offering an advantageous contrast to Bush: experienced, informed, articulate, serious, and most of all, a veteran with a chest full of medals. After three years of having their patriotism questioned every time they criticized the president, they told each other, "A couple of draft dodgers like Bush and Cheney could never do that to a war hero, right?"
The Bush campaign responded by doing a few things. First, they invoked the terrorist attacks of three years before shamelessly and relentlessly, to the point where their slogan might as well have been, "Because 9/11, re-elect George W. '9/11' Bush. And also, 9/11." They unleashed a wave of personal attacks on Kerry that was positively awe-inspiring in its scurrilousness and cynicism, claiming that Kerry had faked his war wounds and betrayed his fellow soldiers. And they used the most eye-catching social issue of the moment — same-sex marriage — to exacerbate social divisions and drive their base voters to the polls. Republicans got same-sex marriage bans on the ballot in 11 states that year; all the measures passed.
No two elections are exactly alike, but the echoes sound familiar. If there's anything that Donald Trump understands, it's the politics of division. His latest squabble with pro athletes is a perfect example: He elevates an issue meant to get his base of resentful whites riled up, and even if broad public opinion isn't on his side, he has seized control of the agenda and seems to have accomplished what he set out to do, if what he wanted was to reinforce his supporters' attachment to him as the avatar of white identity politics. That's an investment he'll be calling on later.
But what about his low approval ratings, and the fact that he's tangling with all these beloved figures like LeBron James and Steph Curry? Won't that hurt him? It might. But we have to keep in mind that Trump doesn't have to win over half the country. He got elected president with fewer votes than his opponent, and he could be the first to do it twice. The Electoral College contains a built-in advantage for Republicans, privileging the votes of small rural states over those of the larger states where Democrats dominate; it came through for him once, and it could do so again.
That's not to mention the fact that Republicans are working hard to put in place as many vote suppression measures as they can. Laws that require voter ID and that make registration difficult have already borne fruit; a recent study found that just in two heavily Democratic counties in Wisconsin (Dane and Milwaukee), the state's voter ID law kept an estimated 16,800 people from the polls, and that "the burdens of voter ID fell disproportionately on low-income and minority populations." Trump won Wisconsin by only 22,700 votes.
Multiply the effects of that vote suppression in those two counties by the rest of the state, and then the rest of the country, and you get an idea of the thumb that will be on the scale for Trump in his re-election effort. And who knows what else will happen — Jeff Sessions could help out with a timely investigation of Trump's opponent, or perhaps the Russians will devise new ways of injecting themselves into the campaign on his behalf.
Presidential re-election campaigns are referenda on the incumbent — most of the time, anyway. In 2004, George W. Bush succeeded in making the election mostly about his opponent, whom he and his party gutted with a hundred stilettos. Character assassination is the GOP specialty, particularly Trump's; you can bet that whoever the Democratic nominee is, they'll be the target of some of the most vicious personal attacks we've ever seen.
It might not work, of course. That person might have the charisma to overcome the onslaught, and it might not be enough to make up for Trump's wide unpopularity. But even with Trump's presidency being the rolling disaster that it is, we can't forget that him winning re-election, and being president for eight long years, will never be outside the realm of the possible.