Tom Friedman uses a variation of a “transmigrating soul” counterfactual in his latest New York Times column. This type of “what if” typically exports the soul of a key historical figure into the soul of another in order to highlight ways that the former might have behaved differently. To wit: William Gould speculated that if President Richard M. Nixon had responded to the disclosure of the Watergate burglary in 1973 in the same way that “[President John F.] Kennedy [responded] after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and taken the blame for himself, he would have continued to be president.”
Friedman doesn’t so much have Trump behaving like another historical figure as have him behave like someone unlike Donald Trump. Friedman’s goal is to emphasize Trump’s divisive leadership style in the months since the election, by asking readers to imagine how much more unity he might have been able to engender if he had tweeted more benevolently.
Friedman provides a variety of examples and writes:
“What if, after Meryl Streep used her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes to decry Trump’s cruel impersonation of a handicapped reporter, Trump — instead of ridiculously calling her “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood” — had tweeted: “Meryl Streep, greatest actress ever, ever, ever. Stuff happens in campaigns, Meryl. Even I have regrets. But watch, I’ll make you proud of my presidency!!!!”
“What if, after John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights hero, questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election, Trump hadn’t sneered that Lewis was “all talk, talk, talk” and “should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape.” What if Trump instead tweeted: “John Lewis, a great American, let’s walk together through your district and develop a plan to improve people’s lives there. Obama was all talk. I’m all action. Call me Friday after 1 p.m. 202-456-1414. I’ll show you how legit I am.”
“What if on New Year’s Trump — instead of tweeting “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies” who “lost so badly they just don’t know what to do” — had tweeted: “Happy New Year to every American — especially to Hillary Clinton and her supporters who fought a tough campaign — very tough. Let’s together make 2017 amazing (!!!!!!) for every American. Love!”
“What if, after a cast member of the musical “Hamilton” appealed to Vice President-elect Mike Pence to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us,” Trump — instead of denouncing the actor as being “very rude and insulting” and claiming he “couldn’t even memorize lines” — had instead tweeted: “To the cast of Hamilton: Appreciate your sincere concern for our country. When I am in the room where it happens, good stuff will happen. I will not throw away my shot to work on behalf of all of us!!!”
“What if Trump — instead of calling Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “head clown” — had tweeted: “Chuck, you are THE MAN!!! Top Democrat now that Obama’s gone!!! You love to deal. Send me your best health care experts and we’ll fix this thing together in 24 hours, so every American gets better, cheaper care. We’ll both be heroes (well, me just a little bit more). Call me!!!”
“That is the sound of magnanimity. It would have generated a flood of good will that would make solving every big problem easier. And it would have cost Trump nothing.”
Friedman’s counterfactuals are instructive and would certainly be convincing were they not utterly unrealistic. They are akin to saying that “if Trump were not Trump, then he would have rallied Americans to tackle the country’s many challenges.”
But Trump IS Trump.
And so while showing how he could have garnered additional support by behaving differently in his recent tweets is instructive, it is futile to wish him to behave otherwise.
I suppose I should come up with another term to define this subset of a “transmigrating soul” counterfactual. But I’m having a tough time. The “If I Weren’t Me” counterfactual doesn’t grab me, nor does “If He/She Were Someone Else” counterfactual. What about a “Leopard Spot” counterfactual? It suggests that no matter how hard a “leopard” tries to behave differently, it can’t change its “spots.” The problem is that this phrase refers to the futility of the counterfactual, not its premise, which is that a historical figure could have/might have behaved in a fashion contrary to his or her nature. I guess I could subsume the premise of changeability within the phrase “leopard spot.” Hmmmmm….must think more about this one….