On Wednesday, Time magazine announced that its 2015 Person of the Year is German Chancellor Angela Merkel — and even the announcement sounded surprised.
"Angela Merkel Beats Trump for Person of the Year," the headline declared. The corresponding article opened with, "Donald Trump has been named a runner-up."
The message was clear: "We know you were expecting Trump, but think again!"
It's not that Merkel wasn't influential in 2015, as my colleague Dylan Matthews wrote in a defense of Time's choice. As Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs wrote in an explanation of why they picked her, Merkel has played a role in many significant global events this year, from Europe's burgeoning debt crises and an increasingly aggressive Vladimir Putin to the ongoing refugee crisis that strikes chords both personal and political with the chancellor.
But the fact that Time feels the need to defend its selection so robustly speaks volumes about the incredibly murky definition of Person of the Year, which tends to change just as often as the recipient.
Time has recently struggled to decide between people who affect world events and those who affect the news cycle
If, as former Time managing editor Jim Kelly said in 2001, the "classic definition" of the Person of the Year is "the person who most affected the events of the year, for better or for worse," choosing Merkel makes sense. However, when you survey Time's picks since it started the Person of the Year tradition in 1933, it becomes clear that this definition is more of a suggestion than a rule. It shifts and changes shape depending on how the presiding editors want their choices to fit.
The magazine insists it doesn’t look at Person of the Year as an award, pointing to past recipients like Adolf Hitler (1938), Josef Stalin (1939 and 1942), and Ayatollah Khomeini (1977) as examples of "unpopular" or "controversial" picks. But more recent choices have veered in a far safer and more laudatory direction, often dovetailing with a major news story (see: Ebola Fighters in 2014, hip new Pope Francis in 2013, The Protestor in 2011). The last real controversial pick was in 2001, when former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani got the nod even though many people believed Osama Bin Laden was the right, if sobering, call.
The recent string of "praiseworthy" Persons of the Year has made the title feel more like an honor than a commentary, and if you're looking at it from that angle, giving it to Trump for 2015 would've been an alarming decision. But the reality is a little more complicated — and far foggier — than that.
Sure, there have been plenty of years in which the Person of the Year was indeed "the person who most affected the events of the year, for better or for worse," but there have been plenty of times when that wasn’t the case. There have certainly been years when influencing the news cycle was obviously more important than actually changing the face of the world. Under that former definition, Trump would have been the obvious choice for 2015.
The case for Trump being Time's 2015 Person of the Year
One of the most telling discussions surrounding Angela Merkel's selection began with an essay about the Person of the Year's male-dominated history, which was published concurrently with Time's announcement. In "Here’s Why It’s Been 29 Years Since a Woman Was Person of the Year," the magazine's deputy managing editor, Radhika Jones, writes that historically, few women have been Person of the Year because the label "tends to favor people with institutional power."
Aside from being a pretty weak argument for largely excluding women, plenty of whom have found power outside traditional institutions, it also conflicts with Jones's assertion in the same essay that the Person of the Year "reflects Time’s view of who affected the news and our lives, for good or for ill." It marks a small, but important change from the definition Kelly put forth in 2001, and if that's the rubric Time is using these days, it shifts the purpose of Person of the Year just enough to widen the pool to people who affect cultural mindsets rather than tangible news events.
After all, if there’s anyone who knows that you don’t necessarily need institutional power to affect the news and our lives, it’s Donald J. Trump.
Not wanting Trump to be Person of the Year is one thing. Arguing that he wouldn't, couldn't, absolutely shouldn't be Person of the Year is another — and in the context of Time’s history, that argument doesn't make any sense. This might not have been the year he influenced world events in the way Kelly described, but it is a year in which he laid a solid foundation by playing to some of America's worst instincts. As far as someone who "affected the news and our lives, for good or for ill," Trump and his campaign — which feed on paranoia and partisan politics — absolutely fit the bill.
To be clear: I’m not disappointed that Time didn’t pick Trump, because he’s odious and opportunistic and would’ve loved nothing more than to see his own face on the cover. But as a figurehead for a lot of ugly issues colliding all at once, he wouldn’t have been so ridiculous a choice for Time to highlight as representative of this year.
It’s not that Trump was necessarily more "important" than Merkel in the grand scheme of things (though we could probably quibble over what "important" means in this context). It's that Trump represents a perfect amalgamation of the incendiary politics we saw so much of in 2015. Trump began his campaign as a billionaire joke descending an escalator; he's entering 2016 as a serious contender.
This year, Trump rebuffed traditional politics, swapping the hemming and hawing of his fellow GOP candidates for unapologetic proclamations that still lacked any basis. He favored bold (and forcefully racist) rhetoric that overshadowed an unprecedented number of rivals. Most importantly, he tapped into a small but loud current of raging dissatisfaction in the United States. And whether his businesses have floundered or thrived, Trump is a showman who knows the value of good ratings — and that it takes a steady stream of outsize, deliberately provocative statements to get them.
Now Trump is leaning even harder into purposeful hate-mongering, following up on his early campaign declaration that Mexican immigrants are mostly "rapists" with a firm pledge to prioritize banning Muslims from entering the country. It's a disgusting, actively harmful statement that in no way deserves encouragement or praise. But "for better or for worse," Trump has eagerly sunk his teeth into Islamophobia with aims to elicit strong reactions no matter the cost, and that unfortunate truth neatly encapsulates the inflammatory speech, racial tensions, constant news cycle, and turbulent politics that have defined so much of 2015.
As my colleague Andrew Prokop recently wrote, Trump "needs controversy like oxygen." Giving him the title of Person of the Year could therefore be seen as Time making a cynical grab for clicks. However, according to some of the magazine's own criteria, it would have also made perfect sense.
The question Time can't seem to answer: What does it mean to be influential?
The conflict Time runs into again and again is that it can't make up its mind on what it means to be influential, or culturally significant. Does it mean affecting the events of the year, as Kelly said? Or does it mean affecting "the news and our lives," as Jones put forth?
At first, these descriptions might look and sound similar, but once you dig into the nuances of what they mean in terms of the final choice, things start to get more complicated. Kelly's definition emphasizes influence through action; Jones's leaves room for cultural sway. The two can go hand in hand, but they're not necessarily mutually exclusive, and there's hardly a better way to illustrate that divide than with Merkel and Trump, this year's recipient and runner-up.
This kind of obfuscation and confusion is exactly why Person of the Year has become such an amorphous title, perplexing anyone who tries to argue its logic one way or the other. Once you pull at one corner of its definition, the whole thing crumbles into dust — which is far from the declarative statement Time thinks it's making.