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.