‘People’ Magazine’s Trump Cover and Why We Should Be Suspicious of Media That Makes Us Feel Good

This is what the normalization of an autocrat looks like.

A beaming Trump appears on the cover of this week’s issue of People magazine. He appears to be in mid-stride, in a dark suit and red tie. His MAGA hat, so conspicuous on the campaign trail, is missing. The photographer seems to have captured him mid-grimace; he wears what could be interpreted as a smile on his face, although you get the sense the expression is a happy accident. In the background, a crowd lifts its arms in celebration. In the left-hand corner, a man with a dark complexion smiles and extends a hand toward Trump.

The cover, which the magazine first circulated online on Wednesday, quickly drew condemnation on social media, with many threatening to boycott a magazine that just weeks ago ran a story about one of its own reporters being sexually assaulted by President-Elect Trump. On Friday, People’s editor, Jess Cagle, published a memo defending the cover, writing that it is “in no way a celebration or endorsement of this deeply polarizing figure.” Some readers, he wrote, were “sickened” by the cover; others were “thrilled.” “In any case,” the memo continues, “it seemed wrong to put anyone other than the president-elect on the cover this week. He was elected president. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen.”

But his response failed to address the tone of the cover, which in no way indicates the magazine was just reporting the news of our new president, as Cagle’s comments suggest. As Anne Helen Peterson points out at BuzzFeed, the revelatory crowd in the background — including that ethnically ambiguous man in the corner — was Photoshopped in to indicate a level of unequivocal support for Trump. Cagle isn’t worried about the implications of Trump’s election but of his subscriber base — 73 percent female (62 percent of those readers are working women), 63 percent college-educated, and with a median household income of $68,776. The election results, Peterson writes, made clear to Cagle that his readership may have expressed outrage at the 2005 assault of reporter Natasha Stoynoff, but they’d vote for Trump anyway. It wasn’t a dealbreaker, and for People’s loyal readers, this cover won’t be, either.

(Even if some readers are turned off by the cover, I doubt it’ll make much of a difference to the magazine’s bottom line. Facebook and Twitter have become so integral to the monetization of online writing, a juicy article that arouses revulsion is just as likely to inspire a flurry of clicks as one that generates admiration. As Amanda Hess pointed out in a 2014 Slate piece on People’s Sexiest Man Alive tradition, the man chosen for this great honor is likely to be the one most willing to loudly shill for the publication. For People, “publicity has become more important than positive public opinion.”)

The cover, by the way, is still pinned to People’s Twitter account (“He’s hired!”); in between posts about Kim Kardashian’s third pregnancy and a makeup artist who lost 194 pounds, over the past 15 hours, the magazine has parceled out soothing reassurances from Trump’s Sunday night interview with 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl: “Donald Trump says he is ‘saddened’ to hear of reports of hate speech from his supporters and urges them to ‘stop it’”; “Trump says he’s still considering an investigation into Hillary but doesn’t want to ‘hurt’ the Clintons”; “Donald Trump says the hate speech from his alleged supporters ‘saddens’ him.”

As sickening as the Trump cover is, People’s Wednesday post of “27 photos of Ivanka Trump and her family that are way too cute” might be worse, because it uses Ivanka’s appeal and poise in the same way her father’s campaign did — to make Trump palatable to white, middle-class women. And in the wake of his election, People‘s fawning coverage of celebrity women who cheerfully domesticate themselves by having children — and then compete in a race to lose the baby weight before some tabloid or another exposes the dirty secret that they have human bodies — seems not only retrograde but dangerous.

The magazine has also been tweeting about Katy Perry’s $10,000 donation to Planned Parenthood, neo-Nazi publishers urging readers to troll Trump’s critics until they kill themselves, and Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live monologue, in which he admonished the country for electing an “internet troll” as president. People’s just trying to reflect the deep division in this country, right? And anyway, it’s just a gossip rag. It can’t be expected to report on the presidency like the Washington Post would. That’s not what People is for. People is for flipping through pictures of famous women in bikinis while an underpaid immigrant paints your toenails.

This breathless coverage of what is most definitely not just another celebrity family is what the normalization of an autocrat looks like in America in 2016. People is not alone in this; in late October, Elle Decor reported that Ivanka and Jared’s Upper East Side apartment was “as stylish as you’d expect.” And as much as I enjoyed this weekend’s episode of SNL, a tonal mix of sober and joyous that felt appropriate, it does not absolve the program from its decision to have Trump host the show a year ago. The Huffington Post, which botched its coverage of the Trump campaign right out of the gate by infamously relegating him to the “entertainment” section, announced on Wednesday that it would no longer add a disclaimer about the president-elect’s history of racism, sexual assault, and xenophobia to stories about Trump. (That sad little disclaimer, established in January 2016, was itself too little, too late.)

At The New Yorker, David Remnick set a commendably stringent anti-authoritarian tone immediately after the returns confirmed Trump’s election early on Wednesday morning with a piece titled, “An American Tragedy.” Remnick — who made his name with a deeply reported and researched book about the collapse of the Soviet Union — is one of few editors setting a tone of consternation and resistance rather than cautious optimism or reconciliation.

With every new report of Trump supporters harassing minorities and women — which Trump encouraged throughout his campaign at his rallies and on Twitter — we’re reminded that what stops people from behaving this way is the sense that to do so would be socially alienating; it would inspire condemnation from friends and family, get you fired from your job, make you a pariah, at least in public. On Wednesday, we woke up to the reality that this behavior is sanctioned by the highest power in the land. It’s a badge of honor. It’s presidential. And it must not be so bad, because there’s that man everyone says is so dangerous, smiling warmly on the cover of People.

Right now, I take comfort in panic. Now is the time to be suspicious about messages that make us feel safe, as if nothing’s really changed. As Trump’s win demonstrates, just because you can’t imagine something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Let’s not make that mistake again. Subscribe to a newspaper, or two or three. Cancel your subscription to People.