The book cover has all the aspirational seriousness of a Trump presidency: There’s the man himself, with his signature long red tie and flaxen hair helmet, leaning over the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, surrounded by framed photos of Ivanka — his brows lowered, his mouth set in the usual pout. Then there’s the familiar hyperbole: “You Can’t Spell America Without ME: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President” by (this in big, gold letters) DONALD J. TRUMP.
But, wait a sec. Isn’t that Alec Baldwin doing his “Saturday Night Live” impression? And isn’t this “so-called parody” actually written by Baldwin and author/public radio host Kurt Andersen? The latter analyzed the rise of Trump in his recent book, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire — a 500-Year History,” and also famously co-founded Spy magazine, which from the mid-1980s through early ’90s made a habit of mocking the “Queens-born casino operator”: his empire, his ego, his apparently small hands. (Spy took to calling him “short-fingered vulgarian,” a nickname Trump did not relish.)
Beyond the cover, the next noticeable thing about this newly released faux memoir is its heft. “We really wanted to make it as though Trump were putting this out,” Andersen told the Tribune in a recent phone interview. “Which is why it’s so glossy and gold and heavy stock.” The chapter titles, too, are delightfully over the top: “It Finally Felt Real, Like a Movie,” “I Had to ‘Kill Him’ — Kill in Quotation Marks” and “Hooray President Trump, Hooray Presidente Trump, Hooray President Trump in Russian with the Crazy Backward 3.” What unfolds over 256 pages are confessions, reminiscences, tangents, opinions on the fake news media, interactions with world leaders, a sidebar ranking world leaders by height, a golf scorecard, a full portfolio of color photographs (“included at no extra cost”) and more. It’s just the sort of presidential memoir our country deserves, but is it the one we really need? Right now?
Andersen and Baldwin think so. The actor and writer spoke with the Tribune about the curious experience of writing a satirical book in stranger-than-fiction times. The following has been edited and condensed.
Q: Kurt, I recently listened to an October 2016 episode of the Recode Media podcast where you spoke about your long history of analyzing him. Afterward, you tweeted something like “My pro bono job as a Trump analyst is almost done. I pray.” And yet here we are.
Andersen: Here we are! It’s funny, back then, I was not assuming anything, partly because my natural temperament is being prepared for the worst until it definitely doesn’t happen. When everybody was saying, “Oh, look at what Nate Silver is saying. There’s only a 1 in 6 chance that he can win,” my response to that was always, “Yes, those are also the Russian roulette chances — of dying.”
Q: When you were poking fun at Trump back in the Spy days, did you ever think you’d still be doing it in 2017?
Andersen: Not in a million years. And just for the record, in addition to poking fun and calling him “a short-fingered vulgarian,” we also did lots of actual journalistic coverage of him and his bankruptcies and whatnot. Back in early ’88, we did a national poll in Spy asking people who were they disappointed wasn’t running for president. We took the fact that 4 percent of people said “Donald Trump” as an opportunity to ironically encourage him to run for president. Which I mention because it was a joke — this idea that he could run for, or be taken seriously as president. But he flirted with it again and again, until the ground had been sufficiently softened up in this century, and he realized in some instinctive, Donald Trumpian way, “No, maybe this could work.”
Q: Trump often directly responded to things you said in Spy. Was part of the impetus for writing this book the thought that he might somehow react to it?
Andersen: Oh no, no. I can only wish that he’ll react to this! Alec and I have been friendly acquaintances for some time, and he guest-hosted my radio show. When this idea came up, after he’d been doing Trump on “Saturday Night Live” for a few months, he called me up and asked me what I thought. We talked about it and decided to do it together.
Alec Baldwin: What happened is I was at a sales brunch for my other book, a memoir I wrote about a year ago (“Nevertheless”), and I was asked what I was going to do next. I just jokingly said, “I’m going to do a Trump memoir.” Everyone burst into applause and laughed, and I leaned over to my literary agent and said, “I guess we should get on that right away!” I knew a book would be able to access a very different kind of humor — more intricate and thoughtful and clever than, say, what the late-night TV shows are doing. And I knew right away that Kurt should write it.
Q: What was the experience like of working on this book?
Baldwin: When Kurt sat down to write this — I made some contributions to the writing, but ultimately it’s a minor sliver of the whole thing — he had to capture Trump speaking in a memoir format. The question was, how do we get a different Trump? Trump is never reflective or introspective. He has no self-awareness whatsoever. But this book considers if he were, what would that sound like? And I think Kurt has nailed that.
Andersen: I immersed myself in every long interview he gave. I found the long, unedited transcripts of interviews to be amazing artifacts. They really give you a sense of all the strange zigs and zags his mind takes as he’s trying to promote himself and cover up his ignorance, and they’re just so transparently insecure. So that was useful preparation. I thought, I’ve published a few novels — this is a different kind of novel, and the most topical one ever. It just seemed like a fun and useful challenge to do.
Q: Whose idea was it to include all these elaborately staged photos?
Baldwin: The photos were my suggestion, though I think everyone involved made the same suggestion at the same time. We had to shoot everything in two days, where I think shoots like this would normally take a whole week.
Andersen: I thought, with Alec as Trump, it would obviously be foolish not to kind of make it a little movie as well. ... I knew, from walking around with Alec as he walks the streets of New York, that people worship him, his portrayal of Donald Trump has some cathartic, consoling effect. I think that’s true of well-done satire in general at a time like this.
Q: Alec, do you consider your portrayal of Trump some sort of civic duty?
Baldwin: No, I’ve had people suggest that, but I don’t think it is at all. I’ve learned that how people react to you and what people say is something you can’t avoid. But you do have to figure out to handle that in this business. Doing the Trump character, I really have to, on an emotional level, become someone else. And when I come home, I have to be a normal human being. I’m a dad, that’s my job. This acting thing is a hobby.
Q: Kurt, what effect do you feel like parody and satire have had during this presidency versus past presidencies?
Andersen: We’ll have to see. As people have said — and it became weirdly apparent to me every day as we were working on this — the guy is a self-satirist. I regularly tweet that he’s the greatest self-parodist of all time. That was a great challenge of this book, to go beyond what he actually does, but not to go so far into cartoonishness that it’s implausible. Will it have an effect? That’s a whole other question, and one I don’t know the answer to. I do know that people who feel undone and discombobulated by this president need some sense that there are other people tripping out, just like they are.
Q: It can be hard to laugh at sometimes.
Andersen: Yes, there are times you find it hard to laugh or you don’t want to just laugh. … You can see how various people in the comedy world navigate this. I think Stephen Colbert does it beautifully. I hope we do it with this book. Because it’s pretty weird and dark in the end. It’s not just, “Oh look, he’s orange! He’s got funny hair!” The book cuts close to the bone. If Trump ends up barricading himself in his apartment in some insane reverie, would that really surprise us that much?
Laura Pearson is a freelance writer.
‘You Can’t Spell America Without Me’
By Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen, Penguin, 256 pages, $29