Person of the Year – Fiction by Tobias Radloff

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It is still unclear today what exactly triggered the chain of events which is nowadays commonly referred to as the “Battle for Time”. What we do know is how events unfolded, and considering where we are now, we can infer that nobody with the power to stop the catastrophe realised it was happening until it was too late. This document provides a quick summary of the Battle for Time in the hopes that we will one day understand why it took place and, if possible, how we might prevent a similar situation in the future.

Things were set into motion in late 2019 with the announcement that Donald Trump was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Around the same time, rumours started spreading that there had been irregularities in how the decision had been made – specifically, that the president had exerted improper influence on Time and the media conglomerate owning the magazine in order to secure his second naming.

These rumours were soon confirmed by a wave of news articles and reports which, over the course of several months, exposed an unprecedented number of shady dealings all connected to a single construction project: the Time conglomerate’s new headquarter building in Midtown, Manhattan. Most commentators took for granted that Trump had bought the title “Person of the Year” in return for abusing his powers to the conglomerate’s benefit.

What set this scandal apart from others was the sheer scope of the collusion. As the Washington Post put it, “it became difficult to find any politician in NYC who had taken no money at all” to make the project happen. The range of accusations went from “misplaced” evidence incriminating subcontractors to inexplicable exemptions from environmental regulations and all the way to mafia payments out of public coffers. And while some of these crimes were prosecuted, only the small fry were sent to prison. No-one from management was indicted, and no proof could be brought forward that President Trump had been personally involved in the affair.

After almost a year the scandal finally died down, only to be resurrected on its anniversary. This time it wasn’t Trump who was named Person of the Year, it was Vladimir Putin. And like the year before, doubts were quickly cast on why exactly he had been picked. As it turned out, the Time conglomerate had just gained extensive and exclusive rights to the Russian media market. It was a multibillion-dollar deal without precedent, and business experts were unable to explain how a media company with no previous connections or business ties to Russia might have secured it – unless Putin had accepted to be named Person of the Year in return.

It was at this stage that somebody suggested for the first time that the world was witnessing a competition between the leaders of the two most powerful nations in the world, and that the prize was to be named Person of the Year most often. But the idea was brought forward by a late-night talk-show host, and no-one of notice – including herself – believed it was more than a joke.

In 2021, Trump’s strategy changed from carrot to stick. Not only did he demand publicly and repeatedly to be named Person of the Year, he also threatened to introduce legislation that would effectively put an end to the freedom of the press. And while he never drew any direct connection between these notions, the way his administration used their power to bully disfavoured news outlets made the message clear enough: Give me what I want, or else. As we all know, Time caved in and made him Person of the Year the same night Trump was re-elected president. The next day, Trump tweeted that he was now in the lead, three to two.

In early 2022, Trump stated openly that by the end of the year he planned to be recognised again as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. And while Putin never made a similar statement, he had definitely tried to influence Time’s decision of 2021, and everybody assumed he would try again. But for several months he made no recognisable effort regarding the contest. Trump, on the other hand, attacked on all fronts. He brought trade with Russia to a halt and did everything in his power to destabilise the rouble. The embargo on luxury goods was meant to turn the oligarchs against Putin, as was the ban of Russian money in American sports. Trump released a CIA dossier alleging that Putin had committed war crimes and announced in the same speech he would be pouring money into the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. There were daily reruns of “Rocky IV”.

In late November, only a few days before Time’s decision, Putin finally made his move: He sent the Red Army to invade North Korea and dispose of the communist regime in Pyongyang. A week later he was tied with Donald Trump, 3–3.

The editors of Time Magazine have defended their decision to make Putin 2022’s Person of the Year by insisting that the title is not meant to be an honour or an award, but merely the recognition of the person who has had the biggest impact on the world that year. In other words, Putin deserved the title and there was no way around naming him, even when considering that the decision might provoke Trump to do something irresponsible.

While Trump managed to keep his finger off the nukes, he definitely took the loss to heart. When he and Putin met for a summit in early 2023, his bodyguards had to hold Trump back to prevent a physical altercation. It was then when people finally understood that this time there would be no holding back between the two. The gloves were off.

There were countless petitions and pleas to stop the madness. Within 24 hours in August of 2023, more than a tenth of the world’s population took to the streets to call for both presidents to step down. The question of impeachment was brought up in U.S. congress again, but the majority of representatives shied back from handing Vladimir Putin a victory by default. Simply cancelling the Person of the Year decision was not an option, either: Trump had made it very clear that he expected Time to announce a winner by November 30th to prevent “tremendously bad things” from happening. What he meant by that exactly, nobody knew, and it made the threat all the more ominous.

The fate of the world was resting on the Time staff’s shoulders, and they were suffering for it. Within six months there were 177 cases of assault against people entering or leaving the Time-Life Building, a hostage situation involving the editor-in-chief’s children, and three assassinations of conglomerate executives. In July the complete staff vanished to an undisclosed location from where they kept producing and publishing Time magazine over encrypted internet channels. Despite being sought after by the world’s two most proficient intelligence services, they managed to keep their location secret and remained hidden until the end.

Meanwhile, the presidents were circling each other like boxers. Every move was immediately answered with a countermove. Putin banned Hollywood movies, Trump had books by Dostoyevsky burned. The United States beat Russia at the World Cup of Hockey, Putin released the hotel room tape. Russia pressured Poland into leaving NATO, Trump threw them out of the Arctic Council. Putin invaded Kazakhstan to stabilise Russia’s oil supply, the U.S. did the same with Venezuela. Slowly but surely, the competition was turning into a game of Risk, with the actual planet serving as the playing board.

November arrived, and the world was going mad. There were riots and mass panics all across the globe, a wave of mass-suicides in the Midwest, and a fistfight on the ISS. New wars were started, existing ones escalated. The majority of people expected to be dead same time next year, and nine months later there would be a worldwide surge in births. The day that Trump’s ultimatum ran out, mankind held its breath. Nobody wanted the news to break but everybody was glued to the TV. And when the headline appeared, humanity gasped as one:

Trump and Putin had disappeared.

We still do not know what happened to them. The most widely believed theory is that Ivanka Trump and Putin’s wife Lyudmila conspired with each other to have their father and husband killed. Other, more outlandish ideas evolve around the Mossad, aliens, or divine intervention. And some people have claimed that there is a small, remote Aleut island inhabited only by two hateful old men who have to depend on each other so they don’t starve – but this stretches believability way beyond the plausible, and can most probably be dismissed as a grown-up’s lullaby.

Tobias Radloff is a recipient of The Danill Pashkoff Prize, find out more

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