Like it or not, Trump belongs on the cover

    Once upon a time, a fledgling national magazine on the cusp of making its first decent profit was stumped about what to put on the cover. It was the final week of 1927 — in journalists’ parlance, “a slow news week” — and indeed nothing was going on, except for President Coolidge’s Christmas tree lighting and a China-Soviet tiff. So the editors of Time magazine said what the hell, let’s ignore the week and look back at the year.

    time-mag trump 600xThis image provided by Time shows the cover of the magazine’s Person of the Year edition with President-elect Donald Trump in New York. Time Editor Nancy Gibbs said the publication’s choice was a “straightforward” choice of the person who has had the greatest influence on events “for better or worse.” (Nadav Kander for Time Magazine via AP)

    Once upon a time, a fledgling national magazine on the cusp of making its first decent profit was stumped about what to put on the cover. It was the final week of 1927 — in journalists’ parlance, “a slow news week” — and indeed nothing was going on, except for President Coolidge’s Christmas tree lighting and a China-Soviet tiff. So the editors of Time magazine said what the hell, let’s ignore the week and look back at the year.

    That’s how The Man of The Year was born. The editors identified the guy who’d most influenced events in 1927 — Charles Lindbergh. They’d already taken heat from readers for failing to put Lucky Lindy on the cover when he flew the Atlantic, so The Man of the Year gimmick was actually a two-fer: They corrected their Lindy oversight, and they conquered the slow news week. As a Time researcher later remarked, “The boys felt pretty ingenious about getting around the problem.”

    Forgive me. I began this piece with a bit of history merely to postpone the inevitable. Donald Trump is Lindy’s latest successor, and I wanted to buy some time before dealing with that noxious development.

    Trump warrants the award, for reasons that should be obvious, but the least he could do is accept it with a modicum of grace. No such luck. He’s ticked off about Time’s cover description (“President of the Divided States of America”). He called into the “Today Show” and voiced his complaint: “When you say ‘divided states of America,’ I didn’t divide them.” Naw, he was Mr. Kumbaya.

    It’s actually amazing that the Man of the Year honorific — renamed Person of the Year — still packs such a punch in 2016, considering the fact that Time magazine’s prowess has waned since its last-century heyday. (Ask yourself: When was the last time you bought a copy or subscribed?) But clearly it endures as a cultural touchstone, judging from the furor over Trump’s designation.

    A furor that strikes me as fatuous.

    Twitter was ablaze yesterday with Hitler-Trump juxtapositions — the Nazi leader posing in a chair for his Man of the Year cover (1938), and Trump posing in a chair for his. I need not explain what those parallels were contrived to suggest. A Huffington Post article, which noted that Stalin and Putin have also been so honored, lamented that “authoritarian strongmen have always been a popular choice for the accolade.” Actor Danny Glover, like other liberal activists, fumed about the new cover; in his words, “It’s irresponsible to make [Trump] Person of the Year. Based on the fact that he lied to people? … Based on his racism? A racist as Person of the Year? I’m appalled.”

    Thing is, Time’s decision has always been purely journalistic; it picks the person who “has done the most to influence events of the year … for better or for worse.” If you don’t think Trump fits that description, you must be living in a cave without wi-fi.

    If decimating the Republican establishment and decommissioning the Clinton machine doesn’t qualify as profoundly influential, then clearly your depth of denial requires medical attention.

    An acknowledgment is not the same as an endorsement. Yeah, Time gave Hitler the year-end cover in ’38. But it honored virtually every president of both parties, starting with FDR. And “authoritarian strongmen” have been vastly outnumbered by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill (twice), Gen. George C. Marshall (twice) Lech Walesa, Martin Luther King, the first astronauts to orbit the moon (1968), The Computer (1982), and The Endangered Earth (an environmental alarm, 1988).

    And those who are upset about the new Time cover should read what Time writes inside the cover. Its acknowledgment of Trump sure doesn’t sound like an endorsement. Managing editor Nancy Gibbs took on the task, which clearly was torturous. The ambivalence oozes from virtually every phrase:

    “This is the 90th time we have named the person who had the greatest influence, for better or worse, on the events of the year. So which is it this year: Better or worse? The challenge for Donald Trump is how profoundly the country disagrees about the answer …

    “For those who believe this is all for the better, Trump’s victory represents a long-overdue rebuke to an entrenched and arrogant governing class; for those who see it as for the worse, the destruction extends to cherished norms of civility and discourse, a politics poisoned by vile streams of racism, sexism, nativism. To his believers, he delivers change — broad, deep, historic change, not modest measures doled out in Dixie cups; to his detractors, he inspires fear both for what he may do and what may be done in his name.

    The revolution he stirred feels fully American, with its echoes of populists past, of Andrew Jackson and Huey Long and, at its most sinister, Joe McCarthy and Charles Coughlin. Trump’s assault on truth and logic, far from hurting him, made him stronger. His appeal — part hope, part snarl — dissolved party lines and dispatched the two reigning dynasties of U.S. politics. Yet his victory mirrors the ascent of nationalists across the world, from Britain to the Philippines, and taps forces far more powerful than one man’s message …

    “For reminding America that demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it, for empowering a hidden electorate by mainstreaming its furies and live-streaming its fears, and for framing tomorrow’s political culture by demolishing yesterday’s, Donald Trump is Time’s 2016 Person of the Year.”

    Oh man. I liked it better when the astronauts won.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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