Can anyone really satirize the self-satirized antics of Donald Trump ?
Comics have faced that challenge since Trump reassured the nation about the size of his genitals during a GOP presidential debate in March 2016. If parody requires exaggeration, what does Trump's real-life performance leave to exaggerate?
Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen rise to that yuuuge challenge in their new book, "You Can't Spell America Without Me." They're the perfect authors — "the best people, the smartest people" — for this lavish parody, billed as a memoir by President Trump about his "really tremendous" first year in the White House. Baldwin, of course, has raised Trump parody to a fine art on "Saturday Night Live," and Andersen has been mocking "the short-fingered vulgarian" since he co-founded Spy magazine back in the late 1980s.
"I consider myself the world's greatest above-average Trump impersonator," Baldwin says by phone from New York. Although he gets top billing on the book jacket, he's quick to acknowledge his partner's contribution: "Kurt did all the writing, and I did all the laughing."
Their process wasn't quite that simple, but Baldwin clearly admires Andersen's satiric skill.
"To get inside the mind of Trump for 200 and something pages — that's not easy to do," Baldwin says. "And where Trump becomes more and more unraveled and becomes more and more loopy as the thing goes on, you've got to make those shifts, and you've got to make those turns very precisely and very specifically, and I think that's Kurt's greatest gift."
"You Can't Spell America Without Me" is a wacky narrative written in the voice of a boastful reality TV star who becomes president without any idea how government works. In between mad gushes of self-praise, Trump — as imagined by Baldwin and Andersen — excoriates his enemies, mocks his staff and praises his "very respectful" Filipino servant, Rodrigo. (Trump's weird fixation on everyone's racial and ethnic identity is one of the book's many running gags.)
If, like a certain resident of the White House, you don't have time to actually read a book, this one is filled with dozens of hilarious photos. There's Baldwin as President Trump arranging the toy soldiers on his desk, getting a fresh spray-on tan or playing golf while an aide briefs him on the global warming hoax. ("I got two holes in one, maybe more," he claims, "so many I'm not even sure.")
Some moments in the book are clearly ridiculous, such as Trump's plan to sing "We Are the Champions" at his inauguration ("Mike Pence literally pleaded with me not to do that, because it turns out that guy who sang it originally was gay.") But much of the absurd text hews so closely to Trump's own speeches and interviews that the president might skip slander charges and just sue the authors for plagiarism.
That concern crossed Andersen's mind.
"I was careful to not use any of his tweets raw," he says with a laugh, "because I could imagine Donald Trump saying, 'Oh, those are my copyrighted material.' "
The trick, Andersen explains, was to find a comic middle ground between the actual president, who he says is "like an over-the-top fictional character," and the "cartoonish" figure Baldwin portrays on "Saturday Night Live."
"We wanted to keep it in the realm of possibility and have exactly that kind of confusion: 'Wait — is this the real guy or a parody of him?' " (Even the book's title is an uncanny echo of Trump's proclamation on Friday: "I'm the only one that matters.")
Chapter after unhinged chapter, the president delivers his rambling monologue of feverish narcissism: "I'm going to have my White House lawyer look into whether or not we need a constitutional amendment so I can be president and chairman of the United States. I'm pretty sure we can just go ahead and do it by executive order, or maybe have Congress pass a bill to make it more official."
Andersen says producing this parody required mastering the "palette of Trumpian linguistic tics" to create a "faithful reproduction at the molecular level." The task went far beyond just repeating "unbelievable" or "huge." He had to learn the president's lexicon. He had to get a feel for the rhythm of those phrases. "The sentences go on and on and go in all kinds of different directions," he says, "and they can't be parsed by anything I ever learned in English class."
No matter how funny this "memoir" may be, Andersen is dead serious about the president's weaknesses. "I actually think he has diagnosable mental illnesses of various kinds," he says. "Not that that means anything one way or the other, because I don't want people to say, 'Well, therefore, he's not culpable. It's an illness. We should pity him rather than scorn him.'
"I pity and I scorn him both."
Baldwin is more circumspect on that issue, even going so far as to admit to an ironic sympathy for Trump's position. "In my public life, I have been psychoanalyzed by people. There are writers and journalists who venture out on that new journalism diving board not to write what I say but to analyze what I say and give their opinion of my own interior life. I've learned you can't render a medical opinion about somebody that you're not qualified to give."
But then, come on — who can resist?
"Is Trump insane?" Baldwin asks. "Does Trump have dementia? Does Trump have any kind of neurological disorder or mental illness? I don't know, but it sure looks that way."
Well, it sure looks that way in this book. Andersen sees "You Can't Spell America Without Me" as a "replay" of his old Spy magazine days, when he and co-founder Graydon Carter taunted the garish New York real estate developer. "The characters from Spy — like zombies — are bringing it back on their own in some weird 25-years-later fashion."
And this surely isn't the last laugh. In addition to his continuing appearances on SNL, Baldwin mentioned "another project where maybe a more finely tuned Trump might come into play." He gave no specifics except to say, "It's not a movie but a video project where I would want to try to play him."
Believe me, that could make America great again.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and the host of the TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen
Penguin Press. 246 pp. $29