Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, July 21, 2017

Game of Confederates? Thoughts on HBO's Upcoming Civil War Alternate History

I'm quoted in today's New York Times article by David Itzkoff on HBO's projected alternate history series, to be called Confederate, about a world in which the Confederacy defeated the Union in the Civil War.


Undoubtedly, the fact that the project is being pursued by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the creators of the megahit HBO show, Game of Thrones, explains much of the attention to the topic. So does the relevance of the Civil War in present day America, where ongoing racial prejudice against African Americans angers the left and the removal of confederate statues angers the right.

I would argue that the discontent expressed by certain critics about a Civil War alternate history merely underscores the genre's importance, especially insofar as it helps us revise, rethink, and wrestle with difficult historical legacies.

This is equally true of the recent Amazon Prime hit show, The Man in the High Castle -- but only because contemporary political trends have been headed in a right wing, if not neo-fascist, direction.

Counterfactually speaking, if we were living in more politically stable times, The Man in the High Castle would not have had the resonance it does.  It would not be controversial to interpret the show  -- as many have -- as a commentary on present day American "fascism."  Without the backdrop of today's political climate, the show's plot would be relatively cliché.  After all, for decades, it's easy to hate Nazis because of their unambiguous evil.

This is less true of the Civil War.

No matter how many people view the Confederacy as equally evil as the Third Reich due to the institution of slavery, many others continue to overlook it and instead seek inspiration in Southern "heritage."  That explains much of the discomfort about how HBO's Confederacy may portray the topic.

It's certainly understandable.

Still, to my mind, it's premature to judge the show before it begins shooting.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Really? Democratic President Donald Trump? Matt Latimer's "Transplant" and "Trading Places" Counterfactual

I’d like to thank regular CHR reader, Heiko Henning, in Germany for alerting me to the publication of Matt Latimer’s recent alternate history in Politico, “What If Trump Had Won As a Democrat?”


The essay is a great example of a “transplant counterfactual,” one that deposits a historical figure into a different physical setting from one in which he or she was originally situated. This usually takes the form of having an individual being born in a different country. Scholars have inquired how the famed modern architect, Le Corbusier, would have developed had he born in Germany instead of Switzerland. A well-known Saturday Night Live episode from 1978 asked how history would have been different if Superman had grown up in Nazi Germany instead of Kansas (and an upcoming FILM imagines Superman being raised in the Soviet Union.  Similar scenarios have been asked about Napoleon being born in America, Lenin being born in India, and Bill Gates being born in China.

In his article, Latimer (drawing on an idea first floated by Peter Beinart) imagines Trump running – and winning -- as a Democrat. 

Latimer writes:

“It’s a fascinating thought experiment: Could Trump have done to the Democrats in 2016 what he did to the Republicans? Why not? There, too, he would have challenged an overconfident, message-challenged establishment candidate (Hillary Clinton instead of Jeb Bush). He would have had an even smaller number of competitors to dispatch. One could easily see him doing as well as or better than Bernie Sanders—surprising Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, winning the New Hampshire primaries, and on and on. More to the point, many of Trump’s views—skepticism on trade, sympathetic to Planned Parenthood, opposition to the Iraq War, a focus on blue-collar workers in Rust Belt America—seemed to gel as well, if not better, with blue-state America than red. Think the Democrats wouldn’t tolerate misogynist rhetoric and boorish behavior from their leaders? Well, then you’ve forgotten about Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy and LBJ and Bill Clinton.”

Latimer acknowledges some potential “flaws” to the scenario, but concludes that it’s not entirely crazy to imagine him outflanking a coronation-minded Hillary Clinton on the left and blitzing a weak Democratic field like General Sherman marching through Georgia.”

No, not entirely crazy -- just 99% crazy. 

Latimer's essay is a fun read, and it can be credited with imaging an interesting time line of events between January and July of 2017, in which Trump appears at various functions and makes a variety of executive decisions – as a Democrat.

But the narrative’s plausibility is torpedoed by its nakedly obvious political agenda: to exonerate present-day GOP passivity in the face of Trump’s malfeasance by alleging that Democrats would have been just as indulgent of Trump in alternate history as the GOP has been in real history.  (In the essay, the Dems agree to Trump's withdrawal of the US from TPP, his signing a “Muslim Ban,” and construction of a wall between the US and Mexico). Latimer further seeks to boost this counterfactual sympathy for the GOP by imagining that it would have assumed the same protest stance as the Democrats – and received the same dismissive cold shoulder.

In short, Latimer places the Democrats and Republicans into a “trading places counterfactual,” in which the two sides simply exchange their current roles due to the altered circumstance of Trump’s party membership.

The fallacy of both counterfactuals – as used in this essay – is that it mechanistically assumes a total equivalence of behavior by the two political parties based on the simple fact of Trump’s political affiliation.  It is as if the structural reality of possessing power would have led the two parties to behave identically to one another -- without any consideration of political principles.  Pure political power -- possessing and retaining it -- is the only consideration.  No consideration of other factors appears relevant: most obviously, the ongoing GOP control of Congress (which, one assumes would have persisted even if Trump had won as a Democrat and would have limited Trump’s administrative behavior).

The essay has many flaws, but the most obvious is the premise that Trump could ever have run and won as a Democrat in the first place.  The birther fiasco -- not to mention all of Trump’s other disqualifying lies and character flaws -- would have have alienated key parts of the Democratic base (middle class women and minorities in particular) and ultimately been wholly disqualifying.

Readers can go through Latimer’s essay at their leisure and shoot as many fish as they can find in his counterfactual barrel.

But the tip-off for anyone seeking to find the essay’s core agenda is Latimer’s by-line as a former speech writer for the George W. Bush administration.  Given this background, the essay can easily be interpreted as a counterfactual bid at GOP self-exoneration.

Counterfactuals, as this blog has long sought to show, have tremendous rhetorical and political resonance.  They are embraced by all political wings of the spectrum.  It should be no surprise that a GOP establishment stalwart is seeking to whitewash the GOP’s current behavior by alleging that Democrats would have been no better.

But it won’t wash with most readers outside the GOP.