There is a branch of fiction and history, counter-factual history, in which we rerun historical events while changing key variables, such as who won World War II. That was the general outline of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel “The Man in the High Castle,” told in the present day after Germany and Japan had occupied the U.S. for 15 years, and set in part in the Colorado Front Range. (It’s the basis of the Amazon Prime TV series of the same name, which launched its final season in November).
Authors cannot resist this kind of speculation, as witness Philip Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America.” In it, President Franklin Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 by Charles Lindbergh, the aviator and isolationist who admired the Nazis (it, too, will become a cable series this year, on HBO).
What Roth imagined was the reign of a right-wing populist, a demagogue, a fascist – which led to renewed interest in the novel in the panicked days after the 2016 presidential election. This was around the same time, the day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, when the first Women’s March was held in D.C. and keynote speaker Madonna said, “I have thought an awful lot of blowing up the White House.” Looking back, you could have started a fine counter-factual history right there.
We seem to be living in an age of freighted variables. One entails the Electoral College, the institution Democrats want to abolish today, chiefly because Hillary Clinton lost there in 2016 but also because they assume Democrats will always win the popular vote.
Looking forward, let’s suppose Democrats learn a lesson, that they have got to pinpoint just the few thousand voters in a handful of swing states who could have made the difference in 2016, while taking their popular vote advantage for granted. Let’s say Joe Biden runs against Trump, and all goes according to plan. Biden notches a solid win in the Electoral College – but he loses the popular vote to Trump.
Where will the Democrats be on Nov. 4, 2020? It is inconceivable that Biden, or any Democrat, would refuse to take the presidency under the same circumstances that first convinced them Trump is illegitimate.
Suppose, though, Republicans claim this Electoral College victory was engineered with the aid of Facebook employees who took leaves from the company to work on the Biden campaign. You could have Trump in the White House surrounded by sandbags and Army reservists, calling on his loyalists to cancel Facebook and Biden.
There is another possibility that occurred to us as we watched Democrats and Republicans jockeying to set the terms of Trump’s Senate trial.
The gravity of the proceedings are undermined by the seemingly foregone conclusion.
A good courtroom melodrama always benefits from a surprise witness.
So suppose Vice President Mike Pence, who has been gritting his way through the Trump administration hoping he is on the path to doing something good for the country, calls Sen. Chuck Schumer’s cell this week during Trump’s trial in the Senate.
“Hello, Mr. Vice President,” Schumer says.
“Chuck – is it all right if I call you Chuck? – I think we need to talk. Here’s what it’s about.
“I need you to convince Mitch McConnell that he wants me to testify as a fact witness at the trial ... That’s right. Well, to do that, you need to convince them you’re open to trading witness for witness, but tell them as far as you’re concerned, I’m off the table. That will make them want to call me.
“And then I’m going to open up about this whole rotten Ukraine deal. It makes me sick, Chuck. I’ve been wrestling with this thing and I have to speak out. As an American, my friend.
“The way I see it, with a little luck, we can remove this president and bring our national nightmare to a ... Chuck? Hello? Are you there? Chuck?”