Time magazine will announce its Person of the Year on NBC’s Today Show on Wednesday, and this year what’s often called a tired publicity stunt for Time Inc. may really matter. Donald Trump would seem destined for the POTY title, but even if he doesn’t get it, he wins.
The editors are choosing from a short list—Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Black Lives Matter activists, Caitlyn Jenner, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and, of course, Trump. As usual, the choice is not based on the year’s most popular or “best” person—Hitler and Stalin were each a Man of the Year, as it was then called—but on “the person TIME believes most influenced the news this year for better or worse.” By this standard, Trump seems a shoo-in.
If he does take the title, he’ll crow: I’m the most influential person in the world! Even if Time draws a tiny mustache on a Trump cover photo to show that they don’t approve of the proto-fascist bigot, he’ll declare it the greatest poll ever taken, he’ll cite it to validate his lies, and he’ll turn the ensuing circus into a mini-election, as if POTY’s the inevitable next step to POTUS. He’ll be like the president of the world!
If, however, Trump “loses” the contest, he’ll scream—just as he will if he loses the GOP nomination—that he was robbed, and with some justification. Trump has already anticipated this. “I say there’s no way they give it to me,” he said last month. “Because, mentally, they can’t. They just can’t. They can’t do it. Even if I deserve it, they can’t do it.” He could then squawk that Time, along with the “70 to 75 percent” of the press that he says are “scum,” is imprisoned by political correctness—which will only boost him higher among his base.
And Donald Trump will insult the “winner,” calling him, her, or them fifth-rate losers, etc., etc. He might be particularly disgusted but secretly delighted if Time gives the honor to BLM activists, who’ve been heckling him to distraction at rallies: choosing activists who challenge the bias of the justice system would be a perfect example to Trump supporters of the bias of the elite mainstream media.
But it’s hard to see how Time doesn’t crown him. Not just because he’s the biggest story in the media (arguably Al-Baghdadi is as or more influential, but Americans don’t know him), but because of his mind-bending impact on the media. If nothing else, the self-financing billionaire has usurped the very foundation of presidential campaign fundraising by spending next to nothing on advertising. While TV may miss those ad dollars, they’re loving the ratings his every appearance generates. Trump is of and about the media, and the media has always favored stories about itself.
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And the press gives him media time slavishly: At the drop of a Make America Great Again hat, the cable news channels repeatedly interrupt their own programming to air Trump rallies live. Last night MSNBC and One America News ran the rally in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, for almost its entirety; CNN and FOX ran long segments. During the rally, Trump directed the crowd’s wrath at the latest female reporter to get on his bad side, MSNBC’s Katy Tur. “She’s in the back there, little Katy!” he said to obedient boos. “Third-rate reporter, remember that.”
TV time is, like the polls themselves, a testament to Trump’s talent for winning. After long interviews on CNN’s New Day and MSNBC’s Morning Joe about Trump’s new “policy” to “shut down” Muslims from coming into this country, Fox News’s Bill Hemmer reported the “news” that Trump was on TV “for 90 minutes” this morning.
Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s media-watch show Reliable Sources, devoted his entire hour Sunday to Trump and the media—much of it on how the press was finally fighting back against the mogul’s risible lies. But the usually quick Stelter got his butt beaten by Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson, who ended up interrogating him on his facts. (Pierson is like a smart Sarah Palin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump didn’t float the African-American former Tea Party congressional candidate as a potential running mate and foil to Hillary Clinton.)
Trump even took media ground from the Huffington Post, which today announced that Trump was important enough to move from its Entertainment section, where it hoped to somehow bury the GOP front-runner, to its Politics section. That was an empty act of resistance in the first place, and it sounds even emptier now. “Now that Trump, aided by the media, has doubled down on the cruelty and know-nothingness that defined his campaign’s early days, the ‘can you believe he said that?’ novelty has curdled and congealed into something repellent and threatening,” Arianna Huffington writes, five months too late.
Just as Trump wins even if he loses the Person of the Year title, so he wins even if he loses the nomination or the general election. Thanks to him, we’re now seeing the triumph of anti-Muslim bigotry, as Chait says, and a new confidence in racists of all stripes. And Trump will go on to haunt and hound whoever the next president is—knowing that the media will amplify every entertaining word of his shadow presidency.