The Cable

Trump Gets Last Year’s Wish, Becomes Time’s Person of the Year

But be careful what you wish for.


A year ago seems a simpler time. Donald Trump was but one of seventeen GOP presidential candidates, not president-elect. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year was “-ism,” not, as it is likely to be for 2016, “fascism.” The United Kingdom had not yet decided to leave the European Union. And Angela Merkel was Time’s Person of the Year.

Not everybody was thrilled, of course.  

Trump wasn’t alone. In a quieter corner of the internet, political scientist Yascha Mounk warned, “to paint 2015 as the year of Angela Merkel is a little akin to calling 1928 the year of Wall Street or 2006 the year of the Blackberry.” The true person of the year, he argued, was the populist, for that was the way in which the political winds were blowing.

And 2016 has indeed proven difficult for Angela Merkel, who has lost most of her international allies and suffered the rise of a far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party in her own country. She’s had to battle divisions in Europe, a resurgent Russia, and though she was re-elected CDU party leader, she snared the lowest percentage since 2004. Worse yet, Donald Trump’s 2015 wish came true — he became Time’s 2016 Person of the Year.

Merkel, it seems, was suffering what we can call the Time Person of the Year curse — like the Sports Illustrated jinx, but with higher stakes consequences for the global order. And she wasn’t the first. Consider:

In 1937, the honor went to Chiang Kai-shek, who was premier of the Republic of China as Japan invaded, sparking an eight-year nightmare of occupation and three-way war. In 1946, open civil war broke out between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek lost, and was forced to flee to Trump’s newly-favorite island, Taiwan.

In 1938, Time’s person of the year was Adolf Hitler, who unified Germany with Austria and the Sudetenland without sparking another great war. In 1939, though, Hitler pressed his luck one too many times and started World War II. It ended badly for him (and also millions of other people.)

In 1939, Josef Stalin was Time’s person of the year — after he pulled off, in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, one of diplomacy’s biggest surprises. Two years later, Hitler invaded and sparked the most destructive land war in history on the eastern front. In 1941, Stalin was so despairing that he reportedly said, “Everything’s lost. I give up. Lenin founded our state and we’ve fucked it up.” A year later, he was Time Person of the Year again, just in time for three more years of horrible war. After his death, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, pursued a policy of de-Stalinization.

In 1940, the honor went to Winston Churchill and his return from the political wilderness. In 1941, Britain would be knocked to the canvas, ravaged by U-boats, kicked out of Greece and Crete, and nearly lost Egypt. The Japanese destruction of two first-rate warships later that year, he said, was his darkest moment of the war. He was voted out of office in 1945.

In 1971 and 1972, Time’s Person of the Year was Richard Nixon. The two years following his last victory were consumed by the Watergate cover-up and scandal, and he resigned in disgrace in 1974.

In 2006, individual internet content creators received the distinction. Within a decade, huge chunks of the internet had become a slurry-filled, no-go zone.

In 2011, it was the protester, specifically the ones who braved the Arab Spring and Moscow’s short-lived “snow revolution.” But Russian President Vladimir Putin cracked down, and now has an even tighter grip on power. Egypt is now a military dictatorship, Syria is still in the throes of a gruesome civil war, Tunisia is exporting jihadists, and Yemen is in a war that the world has forgotten.

Winning Time’s Person of the Year Award can, it seems, be a bit like a supernova: A last, brilliant flash of light before a catastrophic self-destruction.

Photo credit: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

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