Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, February 24, 2017

The "Alt-Right" and "Alternate History": The Illusory Connection

A little while back, I wrote about my concern that the growing (and legitimate) backlash against the Trump administration’s embrace of “alternative facts” might bode ill for the field of alternate history – if for no other reason than the growing stigmatization of the adjective “alternative.”

Here’s more evidence for concern:

First, there is the publication of a new Slate article, “Alt-Right Facts,” complaining (again legitimately) about CPAC trying to create an “alternate history” about the origins of the “alternative right” (alt-right) by effacing the relationship between Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and Breitbart News.

Second, there is a new article on the progressive website, Alternet, that appears to smear the popularity of alternate history novels on the far right by linking it to a broader agenda of political upheaval.

The article, entitled, “Trump’s Advisers Want a Civil War,” by Paul Mason, focuses specifically on the genre of Civil War alternate histories. 

The key sections read as follows:

“Although it comprehensively lost the American civil war, the racist right in the US has for decades consoled itself by reading crazed “alternate history” novels, in which things turn out differently. Now, Time magazine has revealed that Steve Bannon, the White House chief of staff and Donald Trump’s closest aide, believes the next phase of American history should be as catastrophic and traumatic as the conflict of 1861-65.

“What if ...” stories about the civil war entered popular literature in the 50s, about the time the Jim Crow system of apartheid was being challenged by black protesters. Ward Moore’s 1953 novel, Bring the Jubilee, has the Confederacy winning the war but freeing the slaves. So does If the South Had Won the Civil War, an imaginary history by leftwing writer McKinlay Kantor, published in 1960. In these and other 20th-century explorations of Confederate victory fantasy, the south wins but is forced to end slavery in order to unleash industrial capitalism. The subtext is not hard to decipher: the war between white American brothers was pointless, as economic development would have solved the problem of slavery anyway.

However, after the 80s, the new American right saw things differently. Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House, now close supporter of Trump, took time out from impeaching Bill Clinton to co-author three excruciatingly dire alt-history novels about the civil war. In Never Call Retreat, the final in the trilogy, written by Gingrich with William Forstchen and Albert Hanser, the Union side wins the war but, by implication, the south wins the peace. With Sherman’s Union army poised to destroy Atlanta, the Confederate commander, Robert E Lee, persuades the south to surrender. “The patience of our opponents is at an end,” this fictional Lee tells the Confederate government. “We shall reap a terrible whirlwind that will scar our nation for generations to come.” Lincoln then delivers the Gettysburg address to a nation that has, by implication, made peace with the slaveowners and the ideology of white supremacy they lived by.

While you ponder the parallels with today, consider this statement from Bannon, made on his radio show in December 2015 to explain the worldview of his Breitbart website: “It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up: America’s at war, America’s at war. We’re at war.

For Bannon, the No 1 enemy in this “war” is Islam, with China No 2. But there is also a fifth column in America to be dealt with as part of a “global existential war”. For Bannon, this fits into a generational theory of American power whereby the nation fulfils its destiny through a cycle of catastrophic crises: first, the revolution of 1776, then the civil war, then the intervention into the second world war and finally the crisis Bannon intends to provoke through Trump.

In Bannon and Gingrich, then, you have two men influencing the most powerful office in the world whose beliefs about the dynamics of US history could be best described as dangerous bullshit. Bannon fantasises about turning the culture war into a real one; Gingrich about the survival of an undestroyed south.

From my perspective this analysis doesn’t help us very much.  Not only does it misread Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (which was actually written as a left-wing indictment of American racism).  It throws the baby of “what if?” thinking out with the bathwater that the alt-right has seemingly dirtied.  I am as suspicious of the Trump administration is the folks at Slate and Alternet.  But I maintain that it is important to defend counterfactual and alternate history from efforts to stigmatize it as politically suspect.  As I have argued frequently, exploring “what if?” scenarios is politically ecumenical; it is neither right nor left.

1 comment:

  1. As a counterfactual or alternate history enthusiast, all I have to say is - don't think "all or nothing", as in associating "alternate facts" with counterfactual/alternate history one way or another. It's quite critical to distinguish the two, especially if "alternate facts" are used for nefarious purposes by the Trump administration. There are alternate facts stemming from alternate histories that, in real life, take place in parallel universes as hypothesized by certain physicists, and then there are alternate facts that members of the Trump administration use for their own purposes.