For the first time ever, my choice of person of the year wins the title uncontested.
Yes, the year 5776 has had its fair share of major tragedies, dramas and spectacles that generated heroes and villains of the sort we would ordinarily crown as person of the year; tragedies like the outbreak of the Zika virus, which could have made us hail a scientist fighting its causes or someone struggling with its results; or dramas like terrorism’s global acceleration that might have led us to one of its perpetrators or victims; or a spectacle like the Rio Olympics, which would have made us choose sprinter Usain Bolt, or gymnast Simone Biles, or swimmer Michael Phelps.
Yet none of these can claim to have embodied the year’s most important trend.
Even the seminal Brexit vote, in which the British people ordered the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, cannot produce our person of the year, not only because that vote had no major protagonist – other than its great loser, David Cameron – but because unlike the zenith of our person of the year, that event does not necessarily affect the entire world.
The same goes for continental Europe, where dramatic events did not produce a potential person of the year. The steadily evaporating popularity of Germany’s Angela Merkel, whose chancellorship turns 11 next month, might herald her departure following next year’s general election, an aftermath that is even more likely for French President François Hollande, who faces an election next spring. To be sure, such change might produce a European as next year’s person of the year, but not of the one that has just elapsed.
The Middle East also did not produce a plausible choice for person of the year.
In Israel, the year’s share of political commotion produced nothing earth-shattering, including the recent brouhaha surrounding public works on Shabbat.
The death of Shimon Peres raised thoughts about the passing of an era, but having been in retirement for more than a year when 5776 began, Peres neither symbolized nor left an imprint on this particular year. If anything, the wars across a bloodied Middle East, and Israel’s mental detachment from its immediate surroundings, starkly contrasted the New Middle East he had labored so hard to craft.
Turkey and Iran also did not produce an eligible person of the year.
In Turkey, the failed coup and the massive purge that followed it, while carrying major repercussions for Turkey and its neighbors, still did not in themselves impact the rest of the world. In Iran, something might move in the wake of next spring’s presidential election, but in 5776 Tehran was busy mainly with itself.
At the same time, major trends in the Arab world, from its Islamists’ zeal through the fratricide in Syria to the refugee crisis it spawned, neither began in 5776 nor did they sharply turn this year, the way they did, for instance, in 5771, when our person of the year was Tunisian grocer Muhammad Bouazizi; or the following years, when we crowned, successively, Mohamed Morsi, who personified Islamism’s takeover of the Arab Upheaval, and Bashar Assad, after he survived the initial assault on his rule.
Indeed, practically everything else that happened, and everyone else who mattered or symbolized anything in 5776, all dwarf in their significance next to the emergence this year at the heart of American politics, international relations, and history itself of our person of the year: Donald Trump.
THE TYCOON who this year became the Republican presidential candidate was initially seen as the primaries’ spice, caricature or warm-up act; but after having defeated 16 challengers and, while at it, won the votes of 14 million voters, Trump can no longer be dismissed as an anecdote.
The very prospect of a Trump presidency, improbable as it still seems, is mind-boggling. Just what such an impulsive and unprincipled ignoramus might do once faced with, say, a terrorist attack’s rapidly unfolding events somewhere around the world is unsettling enough. How he might behave if provoked by, say, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is altogether frightening.
Yet even if he loses in next month’s election, Trump’s ascendancy and candidacy will still cast a shadow over the international system. Indeed, even if he is defeated hands down, Trump’s emergence will still loom as proof that America and the world have a problem that is larger than his personal presence.
Trump’s success means the world has fallen ill.
The free world which looks up to the US as a model of political fairness, economic dynamism, cultural creativity, religious pluralism and ethnic harmony was astonished in 5776 by Trump’s conquest of the position once held by Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt, not to mention Abraham Lincoln.
What happened to America? people the world over asked as the year progressed and Trump’s victories piled up. And the answer is that America’s soul, and with it other societies’, have become angry, conflicted and insecure.
America’s perplexity is the result of a political joint venture. The Republicans gave economic dereliction and the Democrats produced geopolitical decline.
The blind faith in the markets that led to last decade’s subprime crisis and financial meltdown has left millions destitute, disillusioned and deeply anxious. There were 20 million foreclosure notices stamped on doors across the US since 2006. How many more beyond this already vast population – relatives, neighbors, friends – did this affect? What happened to all of them economically and where did they land politically? It takes no psychologist, sociologist or pollster to understand that the mood such a disaffected electorate inspires is part of what feeds the rise of Trump.
Meanwhile, the Obama years’ steady depletion of America’s global clout – with an ineffectively sanctioned North Korea’s nuclear tests, a conceited Russia’s leveling of Aleppo, a US ambassador’s unpunished murder in Libya and Syria’s unpunished usage of chemical weapons – adds up to a growing sense of weakness many Americans fear. The people this trend leaves disaffected are not necessarily the same people who have been economically dispossessed, but they lend Trump and ear just as well.
The sense of anxiety runs deeper, as people feel globalization has come to threaten their job security and social status, and even more so their children’s future.
That is why they applaud Trump’s rants about free trade and immigration, especially when they come between terrorist attacks and anti-police riots in American cities.
All this would have sufficed to make Trump person of the year, since the US, despite its sense of decline, is still the world’s major superpower, and when it falls ill its recovery is mankind’s concern.
Yet Trump’s zenith is part of a trend that transcends the US. Insecurity is now global.
In Brazil, one president has been impeached and another indicted; in Russia, youngsters are returning from Ukraine in coffins while sanctions are fanning inflation; in China, nearly 40 years of breakneck economic growth are drawing to a close, and no one knows what will follow; in France, one set of terrorists murdered this year 130 Parisians in one day, before a lone terrorist rammed a truck into a crowd in Nice killing 86, and another pair beheaded a Catholic priest in Normandy while he was kneeling at his church’s altar. And in Brussels 32 people were killed in twin attacks before a suicide bomber struck in Ansbach, Germany, injuring 15, and an Afghan axed train passengers in Bavaria.
Throughout Western Europe, ongoing refugee influxes steadily aggravated the sense of insecurity, while spy agencies increased surveillance of suspected Islamists and nationalist goons attacked absorption centers and mosques, especially in Germany, where local-election voters turned their backs to Merkel.
This, then, is the global backdrop against which Trump has waged a hostile takeover of a major American party and thus landed at the political heart of the world’s most powerful country.
That is also why Trump’s anti-immigrant vitriol is no joke; it responds to a real fear that in 5776 proved to be as widespread and potent as the global quest for democracy was in the late 1980s. So global has fear of the outer world grown that the British elected to leave Europe, while in Europe itself walls arose again from Norway through Hungary to Serbia and Greece.
That is also why Trump’s anti-Muslim sloganeering is not a joke; it courts an increasingly xenophobic world, and is music to its ears. And that is why his anti-trade vows are no anecdote; they are in keeping with a gathering anti-globalization reaction fueled by fears of collapsing personal confidence, economic security, social stability and national honor.
Trump may soon be history, but the forces that catapulted him to the political epicenter are not. That is why he is my person of the year.