During this morning’s episode of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, John Heilemann dinged counterfactual history by pejoratively associating it with the conservative politician and alternate history author, Newt Gingrich.
The occasion was Lesley Stahl’s Sunday night interview with Donald Trump on Sixty Minutes. In the interview, Trump revealed himself, yet again, to be woefully uninformed about basic historical facts, as was revealed by the following exchange:
Lesley Stahl: You have also slapped some tariffs on our allies.
President Donald Trump: I mean, what's an ally? We have wonderful relationships with a lot of people. But nobody treats us much worse than the European Union. The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade, and that's what they've done.
Lesley Stahl: Are you willing to get rid of that Western alliance?
President Donald Trump: Now, I like NATO, NATO's fine. But you know what? We shouldn't be paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe. And then on top of that, they take advantage of us on trade. They're not going to do it anymore. They understand that.
Lesley Stahl:...are you willing to disrupt the Western Alliance? It's been going for 70 years. It's kept the peace for 70 years.
President Donald Trump: You don't know that. You don't know that.
Lesley Stahl: I don't know what?
President Donald Trump: You don't know that.
Lesley Stahl: Is it true General Mattis said to you, "The reason for NATO and the reason for all these alliances is to prevent World War III?"
President Donald Trump: No, it's not true.
In response to this exchange, Heilemann erupted by saying that Trump was basically embracing “Newt Gingrich’s version of alternate history” and implying that if he had been president “for the last fifty years,” he could have done a much better job than what America’s actual presidents had done. Especially if he had avoided a moralistic kind of foreign policy, he could have achieved amazing results – even, as Heilman speculated, by “making deals with Hitler.”
In making his remarks, Heilemann continued a journalistic tradition of associating counterfactual history with the liberal bete noir, Gingrich, thereby discrediting it.
Heilemann probably has no inherent animus against counterfactual thinking, but it’s an easy and tempting strategy to dismiss a silly argument – which Trump’s claim certain was – by linking it to a politician widely-hated on the left.
I’ve noted in recent posts that counterfactual history risks being discredited by virtue of its links to many anti-liberal figures: Trump, Gingrich, Putin, among others.
Such links appear to lend credence to the claim of scholars like Richard Evans that “what ifs” are inherently conservative and tainted by our “post-truth” world’s worrisome tendency to embrace “alternative facts.”
I’ve been committed to fighting this perspective and highlighting the politically ecumenical nature of counterfactual history.
In a forthcoming post, I plan on commenting on a few episodes of Newt Gingrich’s web-based series, “What If?” on Facebook, which I only recently learned about, to examine the links – if any -- between his conservative principles and his use of counterfactual reasoning.