Politics & Policy

No One Was More Influential than Donald Trump This Year

Trump in the spin room after the debate in Boulder, Co. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Time magazine unveiled its final eight contenders for Person of the Year Monday: ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi; Black Lives Matter activists; Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner; Uber CEO Travis Kalanick; German chancellor Angela Merkel; Russian president Vladimir Putin; Iranian president Hassan Rouhani; and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The choice should be Trump, the single-most influential figure in American politics this year, for his sudden, dramatic alteration of the terms and tone of the nation’s discussion. Whether or not he wins the nomination or presidency next year, Trump hasn’t merely moved the “Overton window” of ideas acceptable to the electorate; he’s demolished it and replaced it with an amazing, fabulous, classy, luxurious, floor-to-ceiling bay window.

If Trump is elected president in 2016, the change in direction from the Obama administration to the Trump administration will make 2008’s course-shift look minor by comparison. If another Republican wins instead, the next president will probably be tougher on illegal immigration, more wary of deploying U.S. troops, more hostile to free trade, and coarser in his rhetoric than he would have been if Trump had decided to keep hosting The Apprentice.

If Hillary Clinton takes the oath of office in January 2017, it will likely be because she persuaded a majority of the country that a Republican party in Trump’s thrall was too extreme, too intolerant, and too reactionary to be trusted with the presidency.

Trump accomplished what very few people thought possible. He announced he was running for president in mid-June, and was the national front-runner by mid-July. He’s dominated media coverage of the race ever since, leaving well-regarded Republican governors such as Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and even Jeb Bush gasping for oxygen. As of this writing, he still holds a considerable nationwide lead, Ben Carson’s mid-autumn push having dramatically faded.

Trump’s runaway mouth seems to make statements that would destroy other political figures on a daily basis, but he merely shrugs off the chaos he creates. “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” he asked about rival Carly Fiorina. He said John McCain was “not a war hero.” He gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number. He mocked Rand Paul’s height. It’s the kind of discourse Americans are used to seeing from Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert — and the polls indicate that a plurality, if not a majority, of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents eats it up.

#share#But Trump’s more lasting legacy is likely to be his ability to take a lot of once-unthinkable proposals into the mainstream of American political discussion.

He began by declaring that as president, he would demand Mexico pay for a new border wall. Until they did, he said, the U.S. would impound all remittances to Mexico from illegal immigrants, increase fees on — and, if necessary, cancel — all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs, and increase fees on all border-crossing cards.

The United States of America in 2015 is an angry place, and Donald Trump is the figure who best shapes and directs that anger.

He’s proposed tripling the number of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents and forming a new “deportation force,” and called for an end to birthright citizenship. He wants to seize oil fields in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In a late-September 60 Minutes interview, he suggested the U.S. should lay off fighting ISIS, let them take down the Assad regime in Syria, and leave Russia to clean up the resulting mess.

Most recently, he proposed a complete ban on all Muslim immigrants and tourists entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He also called for new government restrictions on the Internet, in the context of fighting radicalization: “We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way.” He said he would “strongly consider” shutting down mosques if the government suspected their imams were radical.

Mind you, many people find Trump’s influence on American politics this year odious. He certainly doesn’t mind using government or even brute force as an instrument of power to target his critics.

Trump wanted the Federal Communications Commission to fine NR editor Rich Lowry for using an explicit term while criticizing him in a televised appearance. He threatened to sue groups and individuals for running attack ads against him. When a heckler at one of his events was kicked and punched by the crowd, Trump responded, “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

The United States of America in 2015 is an angry place, and Donald Trump is the figure who best shapes and directs that anger.

#related#But Trump doesn’t need to have a good influence to be the Person of the Year. Over the decades, Time has waffled on whether the title should be an honor or merely an acknowledgement. The magazine picked Adolf Hitler in 1938, Joseph Stalin in 1939 and 1942, and the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, contending those villains most influenced the news and world events in their respective years. In 2001, the editors faced a difficult choice; it is hard to dispute that Osama bin Laden had the biggest impact on world events that year by ordering and planning the 9/11 attacks. But fearing the obvious reader backlash from even the perception that they had chosen to honor a terrorist mastermind, they selected Rudy Giuliani instead.

The year 2015 was not a quiet one. Considering a global canvas of invasions and bombings, a Time selection of Caitlyn Jenner would be an apt summary of the media’s obsessions. A strong case can be made for Al-Baghdadi, as ISIS is the most feared threat from Syria to Iraq to Libya to Paris to San Bernardino, California. (Al-Baghdadi himself is less well-known than his terror network; how many Americans could pick him out of a lineup?) Rouhani, Putin (winner of the 2007 title), and Merkel all had moments of great impact on world events in the last twelve months, as the leaders of Iran, Russia, and Germany do almost every year.

But Trump was the great disruptor of 2015, the wild card no one saw coming, the man who completely altered our expectations for 2016. It’ll be interesting to see if Time’s editors can bring themselves to acknowledge as much.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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