Americans Are Living in an Alternate History

As the pandemic has raged on, popular culture has found new ways to ask an old question: What could have been instead?

KangHee Kim

There’s a certain kind of movie that lets you down not because it’s bad, but because it could have been great. One of those movies, for me, is Sliding Doors. The 1998 rom-com has a “philosophical” premise and a double timeline: As its poster asks, “What if one split second sent your life in two completely different directions?” In the first timeline, Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets fired from her job and returns home to her boyfriend—just in time to discover him cheating on her. In the second, Helen misses her train, by one split second, and therefore remains unaware of the infidelity. The two plots—two possibilities—unfurl; in the process, age-old questions about contingency and destiny are answered by way of Hallmarkian melodrama. Like I said: It could have been great. It isn’t.

So I was unprepared when, watching Sliding Doors again recently, I found myself absolutely wrecked by the viewing. The movie’s perky setup was agonizing; its cheerful toggling between Helen’s two fates felt painful to witness. Because when I watched the movie this time around—in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people, with no end in sight—I wasn’t just thinking of Helen’s divergent futures. I was thinking of everyone else’s. To be alive in America right now is to be acutely aware of the paths not taken—to live, essentially, in the Sliding Doors proposition, and in the paradigm of the alternate history. Our news is doubly haunted: by the horror of real loss, and by the shadow of what might have been.

The alternate history, as a literary genre, often accompanies moments of transformation and trauma. So it makes a grim sense that its logic would be resurgent right now, as the alternate paths have played out in the urgent present. Over the past several months, Americans have watched as other countries have successfully contained their outbreaks of COVID-19, and as headlines and cable-news chyrons have turned the alternate timeline, typically the stuff of science fiction, into a matter of daily journalism: “It Didn’t Have to Be Like This,” “100,000 Americans Didn’t Have to Die.” Last week, Barbra Streisand tweeted, “Can you imagine how President Hillary Clinton—a Woman with a powerful mind—would have handled this pandemic?” She is one of many who have engaged in such wondering. After an election that functioned as its own sliding door, many people on social media began talking about the “other timeline,” the “other universe,” the rude fickleness of “the writers.” The jokes acknowledged how possible it is for the conditional to be lived in the present. The alternate history is doing the work it always has: helping people grapple with history’s cold contingencies. But it is doing something else, as well: providing a space to mourn the futures that never came.

In April, the CBS drama The Good Fight premiered its fourth season with an exploration of what could have happened, for its characters and for the world, had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2016. In an extended dream sequence, the show’s protagonist, Diane Lockhart, awakens to find herself not in Donald Trump’s America, but in the alternative. The writers mine that premise for mordant humor; three years in, viewers learn, the second President Clinton has “saved the rainforests” and put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill and oh, also, by the way, overseen the curing of cancer. But the episode complicates its own fantasies: With women soothed by a female president, #MeToo never expanded into a mass movement. Harvey Weinstein was never outed for his crimes. Trump, through the founding of Trump TV, replaced political power with cultural influence. The fictive presidency of Hillary Clinton—Diane Lockhart’s road not taken, and America’s—was in many ways better than what we have, The Good Fight suggested. But not in every way. “What if?” is not a matter of easy algebra.

The alternate history has traditionally been intellectual in its impulses: It treats history as a kind of equation, its assorted variables making the difference between what happened and what could have been. Some of the earliest versions considered what might have occurred had this war not been lost, or that city not fallen. The Good Fight’s entry into the genre, though, added a notably emotional dimension to the equation. It rejected neat causes and effects in favor of a more complicated treatment of human events. The show famously rewrote its fictional plots in response to Trump’s extremely nonfictional win; four seasons later, it used an alternate timeline to mourn what might have been. President Hillary Clinton curing cancer? This was comedy that, particularly in the time of the coronavirus, also spoke of tragedy.

The Trump presidency has engendered many other alternate histories. The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns’s serialized treatment of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, brought to the screen a dire exploration of what might have happened had Charles Lindbergh—and his fascism—risen to power in America. The Man in the High Castle, the Amazon show taking on Philip K. Dick’s alternate history from 1962, wondered aloud what might have become of America had the Axis powers won World War II. Those revisitations are part of a broader impulse in popular culture to play with plots and possibilities—among them episodes of shows such as Black Mirror and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that adopted a choose-your-own-adventure approach to storytelling. Interactive episodes share the ethos of video games, but you can also read them as responses to the chaotic nature of history. They use fiction to acknowledge how little it takes for imagined futures—whether of a Hillary Clinton presidency or a competent response to the pandemic—to dissipate into the fog of the Might Have Been.

You can see a similar impulse at play in Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s novelistic answer to another Clinton-related question: What would have happened had Hillary Rodham, who met Bill Clinton at law school in the early ’70s, not married him? How would her life have been different? And how would it have hewed to the biography that is so familiar today?

Rodham is by turns fascinating and depressing—in part because the events the book addresses, including the 2016 election, remain so raw. Without Hillary to bolster him, Sittenfeld’s timeline goes, Bill runs for president in 1992 but does not win. (A woman comes forward to allege a long-term affair with the Arkansas governor; Bill and the woman he ends up marrying, Sarah Grace, flub the 60 Minutes interview intended to explain away his infidelities.) Without Bill to hold her back, the timeline further posits, Hillary returns to Chicago, near the town where she grew up, and eventually wins a U.S. Senate seat—through a campaign that emphasizes her tenacity and midwestern pragmatism. Meanwhile, without Bill Clinton to challenge him, George H. W. Bush gets reelected in 1992. Sittenfeld takes a light touch with the correlation-causation dynamics of this revised American history; still, in the timeline in which Hillary decides not to marry Bill, here are the recent American presidents and vice presidents:

1988: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
1992: George H. W. Bush and Dan Quayle
1996: Jerry Brown and Bob Kerrey
2000: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2004: John McCain and Sam Brownback
2008: Barack Obama and Joe Biden
2012: Barack Obama and Joe Biden

The effect of all these consonances—the alternate timeline tangling with the facts of the world—is to create an awkward sense of stability. Some things will still be the same, Rodham insists, in spite of it all. The Bill Clinton of the book, after losing his presidential bid, becomes a tech billionaire in San Francisco; just like the Bill Clinton of reality, he becomes a vegan. The Hillary Clinton of the book, just like the Hillary Clinton of real life, gets mocked in the press for commenting that “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas”; in the book, though, the line comes not when she is at Bill’s side, but while she is running for president. (Spoiler: She wins.) In Rodham, the butterflies flap their wings; only some things change. The notion of destiny hovers over the book, just as it does in many other alternate histories: What is so likely, in the course of human events, that nearly every timeline will contain it? What things are enduringly true? What things are subject to the insults of contingency?

“Alternate history, in my opinion, is a more demanding game than imagining the future,” the author William Gibson told The New York Times earlier this year. He added: “If only because conventional historical fiction, like history, is itself highly speculative.” History, even an imagined one, has its constraints; Rodham is a reminder of that. So is Gibson’s own novel Agency—which, like Rodham, is rooted in the history-forking trauma of the 2016 election and which, also like Rodham, is a meditation on the effects of choices made and foreclosed. Agency started out as a different book. Gibson described its evolution like this:

One day I was on Twitter and I saw the video of Trump coming down the escalator to announce his campaign. Oh yeah! And all of my bad scenario gears stirred uneasily, but, you know, I’m not going to worry about that …
And then I woke up after November 6th and looked at my manuscript and it was set in a zeitgeist of 2017 that I knew was never going to exist. It had been made obsolete by the outcome of the presidential election, in this shatteringly absolute way. It really messed me up for about three months. I really felt like I had a head trauma or something. Seriously. I found myself, for the very first time in my life, questioning the reality of what I was experiencing. I was kind of going on like, how the hell could that be really happening? And I thought, what if it’s not?

Gibson’s insight was that the alternate path was the path we were treading—that an assumed future had been recast as fantasy. As Trinity says to Neo in The Matrix, a film adjacent to the alternate history in its exploration of choice and constraint: “You know that road. You know exactly where it ends. And I know that’s not where you want to be.”

To be an American in this moment is often to be beset with a sense of ambient fragility—not just because life itself is fragile, but also because the systems we navigate keep us in a state of constant precarity. One job loss could end a career. One illness could lead to bankruptcy. Another illness—left untreated because illness can lead to bankruptcy—could lead to death. The alternate timeline, summoned as a response to tragedies that were but did not have to be, acknowledges that. It questions. It mourns. “We can see the tidal current and the wreckage in its wake; but why has it happened?” the writer Teju Cole asked recently, in a journal of the pandemic. “All we know is that different choices would have led to a different outcome.”

That knowledge carries so much pain. What my colleague Ed Yong describes as a “patchwork pandemic”—not one crisis of public health, but instead “many interconnected ones”—is a matter of epidemiology but also of time: Our plots tangle together. Last month, The New York Times published a story based on estimates from Columbia University’s coronavirus modelers. “Lockdown Delays Cost at Least 36,000 Lives, Data Show,” its headline read. This was the first part of its sub-headline: “Even small differences in timing would have prevented the worst exponential growth.” At least 36,000 lives. Even small differences in timing. The what-ifs sting. History will always be haunted by the shadows of what might have been; this moment, though, brings the ghosts to the fore. What if Americans had been told to wear masks sooner? What if the police killings of American citizens hadn’t been captured on camera? What if Hillary Clinton had—? What if Donald Trump hadn’t—? What if, as a flurry of individual choices solidified into shared fates, things had gone just a little bit differently? Those are questions fit for fiction, until they aren’t.