Tribute to J.G.A. Pocock

On the occasion of the death of J.G.A. Pocock, one of the most important voices in the intellectual history of the 20th century, on 12 December 2022, and the 100th anniversary of his birth, the European Hobbes Society wanted to pay tribute to his memory. To this end, the contributions of three prominent historians will be published, freely reflecting on his legacy, highlighting aspects of his influence and applying, in essay form, the categories developed by Pocock to contemporary political analysis. Each has freely chosen the form in which they wish to express their tribute. We are grateful to Professors Patricia Springborg, Frank Ankersmit and Jorge Myers for agreeing to participate.

Frank Ankersmit. Emeritus professor of intellectual history and philosophy of history at Groningen University

John Pocock’s reply to the question: Why Trump?

At the time I’m writing this (March 2024) Trump is likely to win the Presidential elections in November this year.[1] If so, It will mean the end of the world-order as it came into being in the years after the end of World War II. History will be pushed into new directions. What the new world-order (or dis-order if you prefer) will be like is hard, if not impossibe to say. Nevertheless, one can have one’s more or less plausible suspicions. Moving from  one world-order to a new one requires each component of the old one to be coordinated in a new way to all of the others in a  trial and errror fashion. The implication is that there will be a shorter or longer period of global chaos before the new world-order has crystallized out again and the vacuum created by the US’s withdrawal from world polics has been filled again by others. Unless this global chaos results in  a World War III.

Two features of this still largely unknown  new world-order are not hard to predict. In the first place, democracy in the US will be exchanged for a presidential, auhoritarian autocracy. This prediction is all the more likely to become true since democracy is already for quite some time on its way out in the US.[2] The Economist’s Democracy Index had demoted in 2016 already the US from ‘a full democracy’ to ‘a flawed democracy’.[3] Thanks to the the Republican Party’s success in dismantling the machineries of democratic government the US rapidly becomes ever more a DINO (a ‘democracy in name only’, to paraphrase the extremist Republican’s habit of maligning their less extreme opponents within the Republican Party  as RINOs). In the Democracy Index of 2024 the US scores now number 29 (just one place above Netanyahu’s Israel) on its list of 167 countries (North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan  scoring  lowest). The Index deftly summarizes the predicament of democracy in the US as follows:

A country crying out for change is the US. If the election comes down to a contest between the president, Joe Biden, and the former presifent, Donald Trump, as looks likely, a country that once was a beacon of democracy is likely to slide deeper into division and disenchantment. A lot more than a ‘get out the vote’ campaign is required to inspire voters, including the 80m or so Americans who routinely do not vote. Nothing short of a major change in the agenda of politics, and a new crop of political leaders will do. [4]

The US traditionally perceived itself as ‘a city on a hill’ – the phrase John Winthrop used when  in March 1630 the Massachusetts Bay colonists embarked on the Arabella to settle in what now is Boston. Winthrop’s intenton was  to instill on the colonists the awareness that  ‘the eyes of all people are upon us’, as it it is with ‘a  city on a hill’. John F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop in 1961 to suggest to his  fellow-Americans what their mission was in this world. He was followed by Ronald Reagan (!) on several occasions, Barack Obama in 2006 and most recently by Mitt Romney when he in 2015 clairvoyantly warned the Republicans that  America would cease to be ‘a shining city on a hill’ if Trump were elected president. 

Trump has announced  already that if elected he will be a dictator for one day. Self-evidently the idea is absurd. There have never been and will never be dictators for just one day. The aspirant dictator for one day will discover he will also have to be a dictator for the next day and for all the days to come in order to insure his decisions to be realized against the oppositon his plans will inevitably provoke. 

Furthermore, Trump has never been a supporter of  the NATO – to put it mildly – and recently stated that he would encourage Putin to do whatever ‘ the hell he wants to do’ with the allies the US has in Europe. Words matter, as we know since Draghi’s declaration  in July 2012 that the ECB will do ‘everything it takes’ to uphold the euro. This is why Trump’s utterly irresponsible pronunciations have undermined already  the credibility of article 5 of the NATO-treaty as soon as he will be president of the US. In sum, if Trump becomes president in 2025 this will de deathblow to the already tottering American democracy and mark the isolationist withdrawal of the US in itself, leaving its former allies in Europe and in Asia  to fend for themselves in their struggle with the authoritarian regimes threatening them. 

[1] The polls are now: 49% for Trump versus 45% for Biden. Or, more accurately, Biden is expected to win 224 and Trump 314 of the electoral votes. The elections will be an unprecedented  landslide victory for the Republicans.. 

[2] Since the early nineteenth century there has been a long tradition in the US opposing freedom and democracy: the more democracy there is, the more freedom wil suffer.  See Annelien de Dijn, Freedom. Un Unruly History, (Cambridge (Ma): Harvard University Press, 2020); 298 – 310; 323 – 330. The idea is that the will of the many will inevitably curtail the freedom of the few. The openly anti-democratic intentions  of the present Republican Party (think of their love of gerrymandering and their efforts to prevent certain groups of the electorate from casting their votes) builds on this typically American tradition (though in England someone like Sir Henry Maine and Édouard de Laboulaye in France were sensitive to the idea as well). 

[3] The index distinguishes between (1) ‘full democracies’ (24 countries with 7.8 percent of the world population), (2) ‘flawed democracies’ (50 countries with 37.6 percent) , (3) ‘hybrid regimes’ (34 countries with 15.2 percent) and (4) ‘authoritarian regimes’ (59 countries with 39.4 percent of the world population).  Economist Intelligence, Democracy Index 2023: Age of Conflict; 4.

[4] Democracy Index; 16

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