TIME Magazine has selected President-Elect Donald Trump as its Person of the Year for 2016. This is an unsurprising and generally non-controversial pick. The criteria, as so often pointed out, for selecting the Person of the Year (formerly Man of the Year, but let’s not get caught up on that) is the individual who had the greatest impact on the world in the given year. Certainly, there is no doubt that Mr. Trump’s stunning upset win over both the Republican political establishment as well as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton qualifies him for this post.
In a deeper sense, the President-Elect is typically the Person of the Year in the year that he is elected. This trend goes back to 2000 and George W. Bush. Bush was Person of the Year in 2000 and 2004, President Obama was Person of the Year in 2008 and 2012. Notably, Bill Clinton was Person of the Year in 1992 after his first election, and Reagan was Person of the Year in 1980 following his win over Jimmy Carter. Carter, in turn, was Person of the Year in 1976 after he was elected. Nixon was Person of the Year after his landslide reelection in 1972. Johnson was Person of the Year after winning reelection in 1964. Obviously, you can see the trend without going further back: when a President is chosen, he’s usually Person of the Year.
First, this trend shows the continuing reality that the American President is the “leader of the free world” and has a tremendous impact on the way in which modern history unfolds. Without being too melodramatic or waxing poetic about the outsized influence of one individual on the course of human events, it’s important to note that the increased branding that surrounds the President adds to this mystique. However, as noted, even before the growth of “Twitter Culture,” the American presidency was seen as overshadowing the rest of the events taking place in the world. Certainly some of this could arise from the fact that TIME Magazine is an American publication. However, given the editorial slant of TIME and its goal of an expansive worldview, this is likely taken into consideration with the selections. Notably, the selection of German Chancellors and Soviet leaders underscore the point that TIME is looking with an eye to global impact rather than impact on America.
The trend also shows the “impact” of the American political system on the world. While this may excite or frighten some observers from around the world, the clear fact is that the world is watching the decisions made by the United States. This may seem obvious and intuitive given the economic and military realities of the 21st century, but, certainly for most Americans, the thought about what other people living around the world may think about the way in which we exercise our franchise is not, usually, at the top of their minds as they select their leaders. While most politically savvy Americans are aware of who is being selected to lead other major nations around the world, the average citizen is apathetic about these choices. Not so for other nations’ views of the American Presidency.
We are aware that Mr. Trump is inheriting a messy America. While there are no, arguable, existential threats to the United States, there are significant factors that are dragging down both national morale and the perception of being able to achieve the American Dream. Certainly after such a grueling election cycle, Mr. Trump and his Administration are tasked with not only forming a government, but also unifying the nation.
We should not delude ourselves into the idea that Americans will come together from all walks of life and opinions, hold hands, and skip merrily into a rosy future. There’s very little benefit for Mr. Trump’s political opponents to give him any ground. Rather, like some Republicans did with Mr. Obama, there will be a concerted effort to cause the President to fail. This is the modern “political-industrial complex.” People spend money when they think they can make a difference and politicians and their consultants thrive on controversy. This, added to the increasing polarization of the electorate, will make attempts at unification difficult for the incoming Administration.
Mr. Trump was, in reality, the only choice for TIME’s Person of the Year. He beat back seventeen other, qualified, Republican candidates for President. He was prone to missteps that were viciously attacked by an openly-biased press. He was savaged by the left, but still managed to beat one of the best-funded and best-connected politicians in American history. Mr. Trump went from a punchline to a contender and from a contender to President. He capitalized on a movement in the United States and spoke to people as an equal and as a success story. He promised change and a better future. He saw the despair in what so many in Washington and New York deride as “flyover country.” He embraced those who felt like they had no voice in politics and became their champion. He made enemies along the way, but, in the end, the American system worked and he was elected. His name is known across the world and his impact is global. He’s the Person of the Year.