During their first terms, I never understood people who scoffed at the idea that George W. Bush or Barack Obama could possibly win a second term. To me they were always odds on favorites. Incumbents always are. In the last one hundred years going back to the election of 1916 a sitting president has lost only a national election four times. They’ve won thirteen times. One of those losses was of a president (Ford) who’d never been elected before, so if we count only the presidents who already proved they could win in a national race once, only three in the last one hundred years have gone down when running as an incumbent. Another was Bush, Sr. who was trying to win an improbable fourth straight term for the Republicans. (And the electorate clearly didn’t hate or repudiate him—they went on to make his son president twice!) The only two guys in the last one hundred years who have taken power for their party in a national election and given it straight back as an incumbent in the next election are Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover—who presided over the 1929 stock market crash.
In four years, Trump could very well seem normal. There’s a winning number of states that presently were willing to vote for him when he looks like a total and complete wildcard. If the world doesn’t burn in the next four years, he could actually seem a reasonable and conservative choice to those who only reluctantly held their nose and voted for him this time and even to some who opposed him. We can certainly expect by then that his party will actually be much more clearly behind him than they were this time.
The situation is not static. He seems like an impossibly flawed candidate to us right now and he still won. Fantasizing that if we just have a fresh candidate and four years of Trump administration wreckage to point out we’ll easily beat him is not a game plan. He will evolve into the President in our minds. He has already proved teflon to corruption charges of every imaginable sort. Many of his horrifying overreaches to oppress marginalized groups will solidify the support with that supermajority of Americans that really prefers “law and order” to social justice to the point that their support for the police has only climbed in the last two years since Ferguson and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Don’t take for granted that he is a one term president, a blip, a huge mistake the country will quickly correct with impeachment or an adverse election in 2020. Don’t tell yourself since he lost the popular vote he’s clearly only in by luck and the majority will vote him out next time (George W. Bush survived a recount and a popular vote loss only to win the popular vote four years later). At one time the reelections of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush were all laughable ideas. Once upon a time Ronald Reagan was just a reckless warmongering right wing extremist celebrity and not the patron saint of the Republican party.
In estimating what we are up against take Donald Trump for what he is soon to be: The President. With all the psychological and institutional advantages that that entails when consolidating his power.
There is no longer any excuse for underestimating him. We do so at our peril.