THE SHORT LIST: NO. 2
PERSON OF THE YEAR 2017
The 45th commander in chief has changed the rules of the presidency
The show often starts before dawn. With a flicker of anticipation or a feeling of dread, people around the world roll over in bed, fumble for their phones and learn whether one of the most powerful people on the planet has tweeted. It’s an uncanny kind of intimacy. He tells us what he’s watching on television, what grudges he’s nursing and what he wants us to think. This is life during the presidency of Donald Trump.
By the traditional measures of presidential influence—legislation passed, policies enacted, visions projected onto the world—Trump has used his first year in office to considerable effect. He has backed out of multilateral trade deals and edged closer to nuclear confrontation with North Korea. He has appointed a Supreme Court Justice who thrilled conservatives and is reshaping the judiciary. He has rolled back regulations and has shrunk the federal government. He has removed millions of acres of wilderness from federal land protection. As the year’s end nears, he is tantalizingly close to signing a sweeping tax bill that would touch almost every corner of American life, slashing the corporate tax rate, closing multiple loopholes, ballooning the federal deficit, rattling real estate markets and undermining Obamacare. For all that, the Administration’s record doesn’t nearly live up to Trump’s own hype—“just about the most successful in our country’s history,” he bragged at the 100-day mark—and it is an open question how permanent his accomplishments will be.
Watch: Why the Silence Breakers Are the 2017 Person of the Year
The greater impact of Trump’s first year in office is that he has changed the presidency. The passing feuds, the wild accusations, the crude and divisive language—no other Commander in Chief has broadcast his outbursts in such an unfiltered torrent. He has spurned traditional allies and democratic values overseas, carried into office a sprawling business empire and the potential conflicts of interest that come with it, pitted American corporations against each other in high-profile face-offs, and gleefully gone to war with the press, with leaders of his own party, with his long defeated political opponents. Even his most loyal allies struggle to understand the behavior. “I do not follow the tweets,” White House chief of staff John Kelly recently told reporters. “They are what they are.”
Trump’s candidacy rewrote the rules of politics. Now he has changed the rules of the presidency. From Washington to Wall Street, Peoria to Pyongyang, late-night television to social media, much of the world revolves around the Trump show. He inserts himself into social debates—the protests in the National Football League, the fight over Confederate monuments—and instantly turns them into cultural flash points.
The daily flow of conflict can be numbing. A new Trump tweet can light up cable news for days, then recede into nothingness: Remember his all-out war on the Congresswoman who said he’d been callous to a soldier’s widow? Or the time he called the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “short and fat”? The perpetual provocations thrill his supporters, horrify his opponents—and keep Trump at the center of the story.
There is substance to the spectacle. Bit by bit, warn critics on both sides of the deepening political divide, the 45th President is changing the fabric of society. City councils and school boards are fraught with new tensions. Family members unfriend one another on Facebook. In a September Washington Post poll, two-thirds of Americans said the President was dividing the country. Trump didn’t cause the growing rifts in American life—the increasing political polarization; the urban-rural divide; our self-sorting into economically and culturally homogenous tribes. But he has wrenched them wider.
Before Trump, Chris Danou, a former police officer, was a Democratic representative from Trempealeau, Wis. He got on well with his culturally conservative neighbors. The day Trump won the White House, Danou’s neighbors voted him out of the state legislature. The blow he felt was more than a political defeat. “I was mad that people I considered decent people voted for someone I considered indecent,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m not sure I want my kids to grow up around here.’” Not long after the election, he and his family took an opportunity to move to a more like-minded community.
Trump’s backers argue that the country needed to be jolted into a course correction—however painful—after decades of decline. Ignore the noise, they say, and look at the results. “I don’t like the man,” says Randy Bradley, who owns restaurants in Missouri and Iowa, “[but] as a business owner I’m very impressed. I think he’s restoring a sense of optimism to the business community that’s going to lead to greater investment.”
America is a big country, bigger than any one President or any one constituency. But in Trump it is experiencing something new. His presidency is already a consequential one, with far-reaching effects—from the decisions he has made to the reaction he has caused.
Foreign leaders have scrambled to adapt. “The United States has been the principal promoter and defender of the post–World War II order in the world. What Trump has signaled is that that will no longer necessarily be the case,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former head of policy planning at George W. Bush’s State Department. Trump’s praise for brutal regimes such as those of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has given comfort to tyrants around the world. The Europeans have accelerated talks with partners in Asia, sidestepping the U.S. to strike a deal with Japan in July that could potentially put American firms at a disadvantage. Trump’s announced pullout from the Paris Agreement led the E.U. and China to take the lead against global warming, reaffirming their support for a global fund worth $100 billion per year to help cut greenhouse gases in developing countries. Trump’s criticism of NATO has prompted treaty nations to strengthen their military structures out of concern that the U.S. might not guarantee their security. After Germany moved to integrate two brigades from other E.U. countries into its own armed forces, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared, “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”
A renegotiation of the balance of Middle East power is under way, abetted by signals from Trump. Less than two weeks after the President’s first trip to the region, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar. Trump tweeted in support of the action, and the President’s then strategist Stephen Bannon said the timing of the blockade was not “just by happenstance.” Saudi Arabia and its allies, seeing Trump’s support as a green light, have undertaken domestic crackdowns and aggressive foreign-policy moves. Israel has approved new settlement construction in the West Bank.
America’s biggest corporations lobbied against Trump’s pullout from the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership. Agricultural companies like Monsanto and Tyson Foods would have benefited from the estimated $7.2 billion boost to agricultural exports over 15 years, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. But the biggest challenge for American business under Trump has been the uncertainty caused by his unorthodox behavior. Early in his term, he pitted the defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin against each other in a tweetstorm questioning the price tag of the F-35 military jet. Lockheed’s stock fell 2%. Toyota lost $1.2 billion in market value in five minutes when Trump, in a tweet, threatened consequences if the firm moved a plant to Mexico—although his tweet cited the wrong city for the proposed move. Episodes like these have CEOs spending valuable time coming up with strategies to avoid the President’s public wrath.
Business leaders have hailed the Trump Administration’s regulatory rollbacks and its push for corporate tax cuts. The stock market has continued to soar. The sweeping tax plan promises a windfall for corporations. Depending on negotiations between the House and Senate, the bills under consideration could also lower individual tax rates, reduce the number of households subject to estate tax, increase tax credits for parents and repeal the individual mandate to buy health insurance under Obamacare. They would also, according to official estimates, add more than a trillion dollars to the deficit.
The single most frequent subject of Trump’s angry tweets, according to an analysis by Axios, is the media. From cries of “fake news” to calling journalists the “enemy of the people” to suggesting networks have their licenses cut, he has taken the always-fraught relationship between Presidents and reporters to a new level of hostility. “It is a sustained attack on the press, on freedom of speech and on the Constitution,” warns Richard Painter, a law professor and former ethics lawyer for George W. Bush. TIME had sought and tentatively secured the President’s participation in an interview and photo shoot for this article. On Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving, he abruptly pulled out. “Time Magazine called to say that I was PROBABLY going to be named ‘Man (Person) of the Year,’ like last year, but I would have to agree to an interview and a major photo shoot,” the President tweeted. “I said probably is no good and took a pass. Thanks anyway!” Trump’s tweet was not accurate: TIME made no assurances and placed no conditions on the outcome of our editorial decisionmaking.
Besides the likely tax reform, the major domestic policy accomplishment of Trump’s first year has been a dramatic rollback of the administrative state. The deregulatory push pleases conservatives, and dismays liberals who say thinly staffed executive-branch departments from State to Energy have hampered the basic functioning of the federal bureaucracy. Agency heads like Betsy DeVos, Mick Mulvaney and Scott Pruitt are openly hostile to the departments they’ve been tasked with leading and are working to scale back their mandates. The proposed withdrawal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, for example, has environmentalists warning of climate-altering, air-polluting emissions—even as fossil-fuel companies predict a boost to consumers and the economy.
Perhaps no one has been more disoriented by Trump’s reign than his ostensible allies in the Republican Party. Its leaders live in fear that he’ll suddenly turn on them, as when he attacked Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in August; or mess up their legislation, as when he called a health care bill “mean”; or announce a higher corporate tax threshold than the one they’d negotiated. A record number of Republicans have already announced their retirement from the House of Representatives. Republicans have also struggled to adapt to a changed political landscape, like the Virginia gubernatorial candidate who reoriented his campaign around preserving Confederate statues and stopping Hispanic gangs—but still lost by a wide margin.
Trump’s approval rating, recently measured at 33% by Gallup, is by far the lowest for a first-year President in recorded history. The former mogul’s transition to political life was disorienting, insiders say. Trump thrives on routine and spent his entire adult life in New York City before his move to the White House. “He had the same chair in his office for over 40 years, so from a personal point of view, it was difficult,” says Sam Nunberg, Trump’s former political adviser. He wonders if Trump, whose staff shake-ups have driven most loyalists out of proximity, is heading toward a Nixon-like situation where “he’s surrounded by strangers.”
It is easy to lose perspective in the moment. Trump has a particular aptitude for pushing his critics’ buttons, so that every utterance gets magnified into the supposed end of the Republic. Liberals once declared the country to be on the verge of collapse under President George W. Bush; conservatives proclaimed the same under Barack Obama. The nation survived.
The world is adjusting. The stock market has ceased to fluctuate on his every growl. While CEOs normally jump for a seat at the White House table, after Trump’s equivocal response to white nationalist violence in Charlottesville in August, many decided to walk away. Most of the companies Trump has attacked have seen their stock prices bounce back and then some. Lower down the economic chain, everyday workers haven’t seen a lasting Trump bump. The 11 remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are steaming ahead with a new trade deal. Foreign leaders and Washington players have started to shrug at Trump’s theatrics.
As a candidate, Trump’s rhetoric triggered anxieties about race, class, gender and social change. As President, Trump has continued to pit Americans against one another, from the Inaugural Address that conjured a landscape of “American carnage” to his criticism of the “sons of bitches” in professional football to retweeting a British anti-Muslim extremist. The sense of tribal solidarity Trump stirs in some of his supporters has made his presidency empowering for them. But for those on the other side of his us-vs.-them equation, the feeling is different. African Americans face an Administration that has rolled back programs to combat systemic bias in the justice system. Immigrants in the country illegally see an expanded regime of raids, resulting in apprehensions at courthouses, churches and job sites. Under Trump, arrests made by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have surged more than 40%. A Mexican woman who had lived in the U.S. for decades had previously been assured she wouldn’t be deported as long as she followed the rules. She went for a customary check-in with immigration authorities in Phoenix—and was arrested and deported, leaving her children behind.
Ultimately, immigrants and people of color fear not just Trump but also the forces he has emboldened. “The greatest fear people had was the hate Trump incited in other people,” says Olivia Vazquez, a community organizer with the Philadelphia immigrant-rights group Juntos. According to the FBI, hate crimes reached a five-year high in 2016, with the pace accelerating around the time of the election.
There may be danger ahead for Trump, as the investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller into Russia’s operation against the 2016 election snares former members of the President’s inner circle. Mueller filed his first indictments Oct. 30, charging Trump’s former campaign chairman and deputy campaign manager with money laundering. On Dec. 1, Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and announced he is cooperating with authorities. Friends say Trump remains convinced he has nothing to worry about. “His view is that this will be wrapped up pretty quickly, because he believes—and I believe him 100%—there is nothing to the Russia story,” says Trump’s friend Christopher Ruddy, who spent part of Thanksgiving weekend with him. Most observers, however, doubt the investigation will reach a conclusion anytime soon.
Still, Ruddy would like to see Trump lash out at critics less, and cater more to the middle than to his base. If not, he says, next year’s elections could be an “earthquake.” A popular uprising of angry women and young people has Republicans bracing for a bloodbath in the midterm elections.
One thing is sure: love him or hate him, Trump has invaded our attention in ways previous Presidents never did. He commands more than just the levers of executive power; he has the nation, and the world, in the grip of his singular performance, and events have bent to his will. This has been Year One of Trump’s presidency, and the Trump show continues unabated. The reviews may be mixed, but no one can turn away.
—With reporting by Tessa Berenson, Elizabeth Dias and Nash Jenkins/Washington; Charlie Campbell/Beijing; Jared Malsin/Istanbul; Alan Murray/New York; and Simon Shuster/Berlin
Lead photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen