In his haunting book "The Plot Against America," Phillip Roth imagines a world in which the isolationist hero and explorer Charles Lindbergh, not Franklin Roosevelt, had won the 1940 presidential election.
It might have happened, after all. Everything would be different now, and yet chillingly real.
That is how I feel sometimes about what would have happened if Donald Trump had not let hubris — more of it than any man alive — blind him completely on his path to reelection.
Attacks on voting machines, made-up claims of fraud, dangerous tales of conspiracy and an ultimate act of revolutionary violence that continues to tear the Republican Party in pieces: all the fruits of hubris.
Another Donald Trump, a rational person inhabiting his body, might have realized he would never win the fight about who said what to whom, but he could win the fight that mattered. He was right that, ultimately, America would not win the war against COVID-19 with lockdowns and face masks. Even the strictest of the strict — governors, that is — opened up too early, unable to resist the economic pressure. And we spiked, and dropped, and started spiking again.
Americans have a streak of freedom that is our great strength and sometimes a terrible weakness. We don't like being told by government what we can and can't do. Trump did not invent that. It isn't just conservatives who feel that way. The American Civil Liberties Union does as well. It would not have been easy for anybody. But he gave credence to the crazies, played politics with the truth and left indelible images of nurses washing their masks and refrigerator trucks outside morgues. We were horribly unprepared. It took too long for people to understand what we were up against, and by then, we were so far behind.
In all but one thing.
Trump had disdain for science from dealing with his own advisers. He bet the lives of hundreds of millions, not hundreds of thousands, on the possibility of doing something that had never been done before and faster than had ever been done before. He bet on science more than any president since John F. Kennedy decided we would land on the moon. In many ways, that was easier.
Trump asked the world's greatest scientists, the world's biggest pharma companies, the world's top universities to do the impossible — to develop this vaccine by the end of the year — and he attached not the usual millions but billions. The system encouraged collaboration. Hundreds of millions of doses of as-yet-developed, much less manufactured, vaccines were purchased. Many countries in the European Union bet primarily on one vaccine, from AstraZeneca. Multiple countries had suspended it after reports of people developing (rare and potentially unrelated) blood clots after being inoculated, though it was declared safe again. The United States, having bought vaccines from everybody, is apparently giving away 100 million or so doses of AstraZeneca that it has ordered but won't be using to some deserving country or another.
Here's the thing. Scientists did the absolutely impossible. We had no reason to hope — until 10 days after the election.
Imagine that coincidence.
Trump's science advisers must have known how unbelievably close two companies were, with others close behind. Or were those the people who had been exiled?
It was the biggest October surprise that didn't happen.
Imagine if he had announced two weeks before the election that we were on the verge of a vaccine and it would be available by the end of the year. Imagine if those who opposed his election withheld that news because he was right. Now, mind you, I have no idea if anyone withheld any news. It should matter. But it wouldn't have.
After all, what would they have said? We aren't close? We are? Roll up your sleeve?
Or maybe no one even asked, which tells you why Trump lost, as did Lindbergh. Men who cannot look beyond themselves are likely to fail when the answers very clearly lie there.
And so, perhaps it was meant to be. We have the vaccines. And it's the scientists, not the politicians, who are the heroes.
Susan Estrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.