Looking for An Alternative History of the U.S.? We’re Living It

Few announcements of a projected television series lacking a rough draft of a script or even a storyline have provoked as much controversy and publicity as HBO’s “Confederate.”

The forthcoming show, according to the press release, imagines a Southern victory in the Civil War, a slave republic in the 21 st century, and “chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War,” an alternative history to be created by the show-runners of Game of Thrones, a mash-up of sci-fi medievalism, soft-core porn and gratuitous violence.

Co-producer D.B. Weiss explained, “What would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won—that just always fascinated me.”

The literature of the Lost Cause as the winning one is a fairly extensive field of alternative history, the cousin of the Nazis winning World War II subgenre, inevitably reflecting the present-minded anxieties of the periods in which they were produced. McKinley Kantor’s “What If The South Had Won The Civil War,” published in 1961, ended with the North and South reuniting in the Cold War.

Davis4-2 Jefferson Davis, Confederate president, 1860-1865, Brady National Photographic Art Gallery, Library of Congress, Washington DC. National Archives and Records Administration

Here’s one suggested plot and a few characters, a treatment, depicting D.C. being sacked and Confederate victory:

Prologue: Abraham Lincoln in his last speech opens the door to black citizenship. An outraged member of the crowd listening to him, a Confederate secret service agent, murders him three days later.

Lincoln’s successor vetoes the first Civil Rights Act. Reconstruction is overthrown by the Ku Klux Klan and white terrorist organizations led by Confederates. Blacks are disenfranchised, virtual slavery is imposed and Confederates rule across the South. They call it Redemption.

Cut: A presidential candidate wins his nomination through an alliance with the former Dixiecrat candidate for president, a Confederate heir, and runs on “law and order,” code words for “black crime,” and as the defender of the white “Silent Majority.”

The Southern Strategy becomes the political game plan. Now president, he forces out the director of the Office of Civil Rights for enforcing the law too vigorously.

Cut: A presidential candidate, who opposes the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, launches his campaign at a rally festooned with Confederate flags on the site where four civil rights workers were killed. As president he vetoes the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Cut: His vice president, a Connecticut Yankee once in favor of civil rights, moves to Texas and spends his political career trying to adapt to the Southern Strategy. As a Senate candidate he opposes the Civil Rights Act, but as a congressman votes for the Fair Housing Act.

In a desperate campaign for president he seizes upon a black rapist as the symbol of his opponent’s weakness on law and order. As president he vetoes one civil rights act, but approves another.

Then he nominates a black man to the Supreme Court. But as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, this nominee has limited lawsuits against discrimination. On the high court he becomes the justice most hostile to civil rights laws and guts the Voting Rights Act.

Cut: This president’s son runs for president himself. The election comes down to a deadlock in Florida. The candidate’s brother, governor of Florida, has already purged 12,000 legal black voters from the rolls. Tens of thousands of so-called “overvotes” in which the voters’ preference is clear, most of them cast by black voters, are excluded.

The Supreme Court intervenes. A justice appointed by an earlier anti-civil rights president issues a ruling abruptly ending the vote counting. He cites the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus a Reconstruction amendment intended to protect the enfranchisement of blacks is used to disenfranchise them.

Cut: A presidential candidate is the son of a participant in a Ku Klux Klan riot. The father and son together discriminate against blacks in the housing they own and are successfully sued by the federal government. The heir takes out newspaper ads calling for the execution of black young men falsely accused of a crime.

He establishes himself as a candidate by claiming that the president, who is an African-American, was not born in the United States and is therefore not really an American. He borrows the code words of “law and order” and the “Silent Majority” as campaign themes.

As president his Justice Department announces it will prosecute discrimination—against whites.

These wild plot elements and peculiar characters are probably too improbable for a TV series. How does it end? What happens in Season Two?

“Confederate” will instead have to rely on the tried and true: “Games of Thrones” meets “House of Cards” meets “Man in the High Castle.”

But the history is stranger than the alternative history.   

Sidney Blumenthal is the author of “Wrestling With His Angel, The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, 1849-1856.”