What Newt Gingrich and the History Channel Have in Common

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Like the cable network, the presidential candidate is more interested in historical fantasy than historical fact.

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South Park

The Republican candidate Newt Gingrich and the cable channel History have both followed the same formula for success, by elevating fantasy over actual history. The difference, however, is that Newt wants to carry his sensational vision of a bygone age into office.

Newt is the most prominent self-described "historian" in the United States. If he were elected in 2012, he would be only the second president after Woodrow Wilson to hold a PhD. Indeed, according to Newt, his gifts at decoding the past are so illustrious that Freddie Mac paid him $1.6 million, not for lobbying, but for his historical skills. Meanwhile, over on cable, the History Channel is rising in popularity with the mission statement, "History: Made Every Day." With practitioners and purveyors of the past soaring so high, these might seem like giddy times for the historical profession.

For both the candidate and the cable channel, what actually did happen seems less interesting than what might have happened, or what could still happen

But neither Newt nor History shows much interest in the serious study of human experience. Newt has never published any scholarly history at all. And the lack of real analysis on History has become so absurd it was skewered by "South Park" in the episode, "A History Channel Thanksgiving"*

What motivates these peddlers of yesteryear is not history but fantasy. Newt's staple is the alternate history or the counterfactual. What if Robert E. Lee had won at Gettysburg in 1863? What if Hitler had not declared war on the United States in 1941? His other books include historical novels, as well as prophetic visions like "Winning the Future," which opens with the line, "In the twenty-first century, America could be destroyed."

On cable, History has followed in Newt's footsteps with a cocktail of conspiracy theories, counterfactuals, religious hokum, and science fiction. Many of its shows are entirely fictional, like "Ancient Aliens" and "The Bible Code," or summon future possibilities like "Armageddon" and "Life After People." The channel has a particular fascination with fortune telling, including "Seven Signs of the Apocalypse" and "Nostradamus 2012."

What History adds to the mix that Newt has resisted, so far at least, is reality television, with hit show like "Pawn Stars" and "Ice Road Truckers."

For both the candidate and the cable channel, what actually did happen seems less interesting than what might have happened, or what could still happen -- with History throwing in some ice trucks for good measure.

Focusing on alternatives to history has proved to be a recipe for success. Newt's eight counterfactuals and historical novels are bestsellers. By avoiding the actual past, History has become the fifth most popular cable channel.

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with writing, or reading, fantastical stories. And Newt and History could be the gateway drug that lures people into a more substantive engagement with the past. Alternatively, their rise may reflect, and reinforce, a national dumbing down of history.

In any case, the real problem is that Newt is unwilling to keep the fantasy and reality separate. For the candidate, the past is a succession of sensational moments where civilization is at risk, until one man steps forth to hold the barbarians from the gates, whether it's Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, FDR, Thatcher, Reagan, or Newt himself. "I have an enormous personal ambition," said Newt back in 1985, "I want to shift the entire planet. And I'm doing it."

The historical parallels that Newt draws are telling. When he failed to collect 10,000 signatures required to qualify for the Republican primary ballot in Virginia, he reached into the grab bag of history and pulled out Pearl Harbor. "Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941," scribbled campaign director Michael Krull on the Gingrich Facebook page. Here was an alternative universe, where the deaths of 2,400 Americans in a Japanese sneak attack were comparable to routine signature collection in Virginia. As Krull put it: "We have experienced an unexpected set-back, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action." As a candidate, this kind of fantastical thinking is absurd, but as president it would be hazardous.

Newt and History are on the same page. If the Republican primary doesn't pan out for Newt, he can always work for the cable channel. One of their upcoming shows is "Full Metal Jousting," about a bunch of guys on horses smashing into each other. The problem with the show, of course, will be clearing all of the muck from the stables. It's here that a solutions guy like Newt can think outside of the box -- by employing poor kids as janitors.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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