How did we let an arrogant, rage-filled, scandal-plagued jerk reach such a position of power, when with every impulsive tweet and blustering interview, he reveals himself to be loudly obnoxious and addicted to attention? I refer, of course, to Alec Baldwin.
Not only is Baldwin tasked with the prominent job of regularly pillorying Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, but now he has, along with Kurt Andersen (whose radio show, Studio 360, is part of the Slate podcast fold), written a book-length parody of the president, You Can’t Spell America Without Me: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President Donald J. Trump. It’s a faux memoir where a fictional Donald Trump delivers an account of his first year as commander in chief, with occasional forays into the past—the origin story of his presidential ambitions, for instance, centering on a conversation with Roy Cohn the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded (“so tragic, but I was in a fabulous mood”). On the whole, the book is mostly interested in skewering Trump for egotism, bigotry, and obliviousness.
So it’s a little awkward that Baldwin is currently flaunting some of the same faults in the press as the book appears in stores. Just this week, after admitting that he “bullied women” in the past, Baldwin said he had heard rumors that Harvey Weinstein raped Rose McGowan, but instead of digging into his own complicity, he added that those accepting settlements delayed justice, which some viewed as blaming the victim. When the actress Asia Argento, who told the New Yorker that she was assaulted by Weinstein, criticized Baldwin, he refused to hold his fire (sound familiar?) and tweeted back: “If you paint every man with the same brush, you’re going to run out of paint or men.”
This is far from the first time Alec Baldwin’s brand of machismo has descended into cheap shots or ugly comments. He doesn’t exactly own real estate on the moral high ground. That doesn’t mean Baldwin, who besides acting, has hosted an excellent podcast and less-assured MSNBC talk show, can’t produce excellent comedy. Longtime Saturday Night Live writer Jim Downey once told me he is “the funniest handsome person ever. Or the handsomest funny person.” (Maybe Jon Hamm fans disagree.) But it’s hard to deny that his Trump impersonation has had diminishing returns.
It’s been a year since the election, and if no one has made a truly great work of comedy about Donald Trump, it’s not for lack of trying. Late-night hosts have been fixated on the president, and many stand-up comics have incorporated takes on him into their act, but there has yet to be a political special that has been a galvanizing game-changer the way the comedy albums of David Cross were during the last Bush administration in the beginning of the century. Anthony Atamanuik has found some sharp and unexpected lines of attack on Comedy Central in The President Show, portraying the commander in chief as an insecure toddler surrounded by aides nervous about a looming tantrum. In general, though, much Trump comedy feels like it’s serving a therapeutic need more than an artistic one.
In the author bio for You Can’t Spell America Without Me, Baldwin says he asked Andersen, the former editor of Spy magazine who has been sharply mocking Donald Trump since the 1980s, to write the book so he could put his name on it and take half the credit. How much he’s joking is unclear, but the narrative voice certainly seems inspired by his grunting, grotesque impression on Saturday Night Live, which has a gut-level appeal to certain liberals looking for jackhammer satire. The cover features a photo of Alec Baldwin dressed as Trump jutting out his bottom lip while sucking in his cheeks in that distinctive Trump pout. The book also shares a habit of portraying Trump as animalistic, driven by primal instincts that can seem canine. “Mitt looks like he could be a winner,” begins one passage in the book about Mitt Romney, “but he just doesn’t smell like one.”
The Trump in Baldwin’s new book has a couple more layers than the one he lampoons on television. And while the narrative is by no means intricate or complex, it does have more of an arc than your typical political sketch. Without spoiling the end (of the book or the country), this is a story of a world gone mad, finishing with a photo of Alec Baldwin on a toilet holding a smartphone. Trump’s media obsession is foregrounded. One chapter titled “I’m the President” refers to picking a new Supreme Court justice as “the finale” and also refers to his daughter Ivanka’s name for his television habit as “Hannity and chill.” Some of the funniest bits are simply moments when his hackneyed musings bleed into gibberish: “It’s Marketing 101 that when you’re on a roll, you have to keep your eye on the ball and keep it rolling—even when other things are distracting you. Like when President Merkel came by.”
While Andersen and Baldwin capture the cadences of the president—that now-familiar staccato, the sentences full of thudding hyperbole, random wanderings, and endless repetition of the same point, interrupted by verbal hiccups (“Believe me”)—a new culture-vulture voice also sneaks in. The Donald Trump of this book is obsessed with show business, never more delighted than when he is doing things that feel like they would appear in a movie. Of course, this makes sense for the president The Apprentice gave us. Would actual Trump make references to The Andromeda Strain, Humphrey Bogart, The Godfather, and The Munsters? Maybe. I doubt he would allude to The Merchant of Venice, even if he doesn’t remember the name of the play. Trump’s fixation on fiction is also connected, in various ways, to another theme: that he is not firmly tethered to reality. “I really need to keep beaming my truth straight to the people,” the parody of Trump writes. “It’s what makes me feel real.”
But at a moment when so much Trump comedy is more sanctimonious than funny, this book feels like more of the same. For those looking for a good, jolly sneer, You Can’t Spell America Without Me will do just fine. It also feels too easy. Imagining Trump as this monstrous other may provide comfort, but his flaws are wired into our culture. A more pointed and probably funnier book might at least nod to the fact that the same New York media and entertainment world that produced Alec Baldwin helped create Donald Trump. Doing that would require a self-awareness and introspection that neither man is famous for.
You Can’t Spell America Without Me by Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen. Penguin Press.