I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, but the field of counterfactual history may not fare well in public opinion in the years to come. The rise of a “post-truth” and “post-fact” world will likely sour people on the concept of counterfactual history, which may be misleadingly stigmatized as associated with the legions of spin-doctors who play fast and loose with the truth.
Just today, as reported in a new piece on The Hill, for example, Kellyanne Conway provided the opponents of alternate history with new ammunition by raising the matter of “alternative facts” with MSNBC host Chuck Todd.
As the piece reported:
“A top adviser to President Donald Trump on Sunday said White House press secretary Sean Spicer provided “alternative facts” to reporters during his first briefing.”
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And they’re giving, Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” Conway said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“Host Chuck Todd fired back at Conway over her comments.”
“Look, alternative facts are not facts,” said Chuck Todd. "They're falsehoods."
Spicer on Saturday conducted his first press briefing with reporters, railing against the media for its coverage of the crowd size at Trump's inauguration ceremony.
"This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said.”
For the record, Spicer also smuggled in a tendentious counterfactual into his news conference yesterday. Just as his boss, President Trump, argued several weeks ago that he would have received a higher total in the popular vote count had he campaigned differently (and in different states) in the months leading up the election, Spicer argued (as quoted in a Vanity Fair piece), that:
“This is also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.”
Vanity Fair went on to reveal that:
“After Spicer’s comments, the United States Secret Service told reporters that no magnetometers were used on the National Mall during the proceedings. “
Again, the point should be obvious: while Spicer and Trump have employed counterfactuals deceptively, that should not discredit them as an analytical or rhetorical mode of discourse. It is their merging of self-serving “what ifs” together with fraudulent or questionable claims that is the problem.
In the final analysis, it is crucial to stress that counterfactual history (like its related literary subgenre, alternate history) is committed to the idea of historical truth. It is a mode of historical inquiry that seeks to establish (to the extent that such a thing can be established) the truth of “what happened” by placing it in the context of what might have happened. Genuine counterfactual history is only appreciated by people who actually know the facticity of the past – by people who understand the ways in which imagination can solidify and reinforce our understanding of what really happened.
Like any other intellectual endeavor, however, counterfactuals can be abused – especially by politicians – for partisan and tendentious purposes. This is true of political figures on both the right and the left. Unfortunately, the fondness of authoritarian populists, such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, for counterfactuals means that they fall under suspicion by liberal democrats, who may be tempted to dismiss them altogether – baby-in-bathwater style – as indelibly guilty by association.
I will remain alert for any trends in this direction.