Time magazine's choice of Angela Merkel as 2015's Person of the Year has provoked a good deal of consternation from people who thought it ought to have been Donald Trump, with none more agitated than Donald Trump himself:
I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as person of the year despite being the big favorite They picked person who is ruining Germany— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2015
Even some of Trump's detractors argued he'd be an appropriate choice. National Review's Jim Geraghty declared him "the single-most influential figure in American politics this 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."
The Nation's Leslie Savan argued, "It’s hard to see how Time doesn’t crown him. Not just because he’s the biggest story in the media (arguably [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] Al-Baghdadi is as or more influential, but Americans don’t know him), but because of his mind-bending impact on the media."
Trump has had a huge impact, no doubt. He's mainstreamed Muslim bigotry in a way that's really historically unprecedented, at least since the anti-Arabism and anti-Iranian sentiment of the 1970s. He's also thrown the GOP establishment into full-on panic, which is worth something.
But let's be clear: Angela Merkel is the most powerful woman in the entire world. She's arguably the most powerful woman in the history of European politics. It would have been ludicrous to choose anyone else. Time says it awards the title to "the person Time believes most influenced the news this year for better or worse." That person is not Donald Trump. That person is not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That person is Angela Merkel.
Why Angela Merkel matters
Merkel has insinuated herself into so many different geopolitical battlefields, and made herself a force on so many different issues, that getting a sense of the full scope of her importance can be difficult. To name just a few:
- She emerged in 2014 as the face of the West’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. This year, she and French President François Hollande negotiated a ceasefire deal with Russia, and she followed this up by repeatedly and publicly attacking Russia for not fully implementing the deal. Whether or not you think she's been effective, she's certainly been important.
- She had a big, important change of heart on refugees, making Germany a moral leader on the issue and taking in more asylees and refugees than any other country in Europe. She didn't always stay committed to this rhetoric, as in September when she introduced border controls again, but overall she's established herself as the biggest defender of migrants among Europe's leaders. Her domestic popularity has taken a hit, but she's helped contain the inevitable anti-refugee backlash.
- She was the major EU leader in negotiations with Greece, and held the line against concessions that would have eased up the country's debt. You might abhor Merkel's unwillingness to ease up on Greece and reduce austerity demands on behalf of its long-suffering, massively unemployed population. I certainly abhor it! But she won. Greece's radical left-wing government completely capitulated to German austerity demands, further cementing Merkel as the de facto economic policymaker for all of Europe.
- Just a few days ago, Merkel committed German military forces to the Western anti-ISIS coalition after France requested support in the wake of the Paris attacks; in a country with a strong pacifist tradition since World War II, this is one of the most symbolically dramatic military actions to date.
Ukraine, refugees, the Greek crisis, and anti-ISIS airstrikes are each, on their own, hugely important stories. Merkel has played a role, for better or worse, in each of them. Moreover, she's been playing the same role in each of them: stepping up and establishing Germany as the de facto leader, or at least first among equals, in the European Union. Even something small like joining in the ISIS strikes is huge when you consider that defense matters has been one of the few areas where Germany doesn't dominate the rest of the continent in regional decision-making.
Post-Merkel Germany will be a very different, much more powerful nation than pre-Merkel Germany was. That will have lasting, important effects for the fate of the entire continent of Europe, and world politics at large.
Why Trump doesn't come close
Trump is a surprisingly successful Republican presidential candidate. Win or lose, he definitely matters. He's shown the limits of Republican elites' abilities to control candidates while the primary process is ongoing. He's made immigration and anti-Muslim prejudice into much bigger issues than they were before him. He's baffled the media with his flagrant lying.
But America has had bigoted demagogues before. Pat Buchanan won the 1996 GOP primary in New Hampshire despite being a quite vocal anti-Semite. California Gov. Pete Wilson garnered himself headlines for his anti-immigrant race baiting through Proposition 187 in 1994. Trump is probably a bigger deal than those examples. But he's not unprecedented.
It's also unclear if his effect will last. While he's currently leading in the polls, most primary voters don't make up their minds until late, and there's still a reasonably high probability that he won't win the nomination. In that case, does his shifting of the debate on immigration last? Or do Republicans return to the more pro-immigration positions their donor base favors? If he's nominated and loses — or runs as a third party — does his movement endure? Or does it dissipate the way Ross Perot's did in the 1990s? He could permanently transform American politics. But it's far too early to say.
Moreover, the primary of a single party in a single country — even a country like the US — doesn't approach the collective importance of the Ukraine crisis, ISIS, the refugee issue, and the Greek debt standoff. We might focus on it disproportionately, because we live in the US and so care disproportionately (and rightly so!) about political factionalism here. But it's just not credible to argue that Trump has already changed the world more profoundly than Merkel has.
Baghdadi is a stronger case, but ultimately a worse pick than Merkel as well. ISIS has actually had a rough year, with some estimates suggesting the group has lost nearly 25 percent of its territory since its peak last year. Its international reach has grown, but if its territorial base collapses — as appears very possible in the coming few years — then its ability to launch attacks abroad will diminish, as well. Moreover, giving Baghdadi the cover would be a big propaganda win for ISIS and so could do nontrivial harm to the world as a whole. Time can talk all it wants about how even "bad guys" can get the award, but it shouldn't award them the title when doing so might help them in a real way.
Merkel is, frankly, overdue. She would've been an appropriate choice last year, or when the Greek debt crisis starting blowing up in 2010-'11, or really any year of her chancellorship. And she certainly deserved it more than Trump and Baghdadi. Time got this one right.