Sometimes the best intentions of a parody book fall embarrassingly flat so as to render themselves irrelevant once finished. These are parodies with the nutrient value of a Marshmallow crisp bar, or a microwave-heated sandwich from the local convenience store. Think of “wacky packages” from the ’70s, or MAD magazine in its heyday during the same era. They latched onto causes, trends, and blockbuster movies and tried to make a statement that fell usually in the middle. Such parodists with access to mainstream America usually were not partisans and their product reflected a comfortable sort of mischief, an acceptable form of rebellion. Think about novelty recording artists like Dickie Goodman and his 1975 hit “Mr. Jaws” that drew from the blockbuster movie Jaws and struck gold. Sometimes the compromise between a very finite shelf life and artistic relevance means good intentions and artistic integrity in a political parody are the first things to be sacrificed to the sweet seductive power of preaching to the choir.
What you need to know about You Can’t Spell America Without Me can be absorbed immediately and completely from the cover. There, in all his resplendent orange and gold glory, is an orangutan-faced Alec Baldwin in Donald Trump drag, staring out at us from behind his desk in the White House Oval Office. Behind him are the now famous gold drapes, a couple of American flags on either side, and on the table behind his waist are pictures of beautiful blonde women: wives, daughters, future possibilities.
The name “Donald J. Trump” is embossed in gold. The dust cover jacket is shiny, and all the pages are smooth. It’s a perfect physical replication of a “Donald J. Trump” book, like Art of the Deal, where the product is more the personality of the name than the strength of the thesis. The many full-colored photos liberally spread through the text in You Can’t Spell American Without Me feature Baldwin in various Trump poses: with an angry tiger-like face lashing out, playing with toy planes, getting his hair touched up, watching walls of TV screens, playing golf, and sitting on the toilet. They’re certainly what the partisans will want, but they’re not enough.
The idea must have seemed good on paper and it was probably easy to sell. Baldwin’s Emmy-winning portrayal of Trump exploded on the set of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in the Spring of 2016. For several weeks, Baldwin as Trump and Kate McKinnon as Hilary Clinton set the standard for Sunday morning discussions and comic relief. Baldwin nicely captured the looming predator-like presence of Trump as he stalked McKinnon’s Clinton on the debate stage. Baldwin had the pout, the dumpy body, and the bellowing vocal delivery. Everything clicked probably because those behind the conceit never had any idea that Trump would win.
It can be argued that Baldwin’s portrayal got darker after the November 2016 election results. The numbed sensibility in the reaction from most of the United States media between 9 November 2016 and 20 January 2017 certainly didn’t help Baldwin or the Saturday Night Live writers. Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer, and all the other variations (mainly from female cast members) helped make Baldwin’s Trump more manageable, easier to digest, and this is an important distinction to make about the portrayal and its effects in You Can’t Spell America Without Me. Simply put, a solo Trump parody gets old very quickly. You can have all the moves down, all the unabashedly brazen and horrifyingly crass personality characteristics, but you can’t expect those to engender the good graces of the viewing public. Dan Aykyroyd’s Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon performances were effective because they came in small doses. Baldwin’s Trump and the Saturday Night Live of 2016-2017 doesn’t seem to understand the importance of moderation.
As for the actual text within You Can’t Spell America Without Me, the ramblings in the 41 chapters with such titles as “I Never Panic” and “If Anything Happens to Me, Here’s the Truth”, there’s a similar problem writer Kurt Andersen faces when trying to parody the written Trump. Of course, none of Trump’s books were self-written. That said, the ghostwriters he hired to assume his voice brilliantly and comprehensively captured their subject’s pomposity. How can an effective parody be made of a text style, and a product (Trump himself) that is already a parody? Andersen manages to create an understandable narrative in which to frame the voice. Take this, from the first chapter. It’s January 1986, and Trump is meeting with the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn (confidante of Joe McCarthy). Cohn is dying, but he’s serving a purpose for Trump. He’s a motivator.
“…people have told me he actually died much happier after he knew he had cleared the way for my greatest deal and greatest achievement of all-that he was my mentor, and I was his John Kennedy…”
Later, in equally bombastic terms, Trump reflects that this was the day when his brand really started. Unfortunately, the remainder of this parody gets a little tiresome. “Millions of people are now buying this book,” he tells us. “I promise everything here is 100 percent true, so true, all of it.” There are humorous parts within the redundancy, and Andersen understands where/how to be pointed. He imagines 19 December 2016, Trump reflecting with an employee about a meeting the week before with Kanye West at Trump Tower:
“…I stepped into my large elevator with one of my Secret Service guys, the African American one, Anthony… I’d asked Anthony a few times how much he’d love to ‘date’ Kim Kardashian if he could-by which I meant a beautiful star, not a white girl, because I am really the least racist person I know…”
The problem is that Andersen needs us to be willing to latch onto this character as he rambles this way for nearly 250 pages. He needs us to grin knowingly and laugh at the gross miscalculations and poorly thought out responses. We meet the characters: Reince Preibus, Scott Bannon, Sean Spicer, Mike Pence, and Jeff Sessions. The Trump in this book thinks he’s being ridiculed and cast off by the “Fake media”. There’s a reference to an article “Seven Days In May 2017”, which referred to the Special Counsel and its investigations into Russian collusion in the 2016 US election. It’s an interesting premise, but Andersen doesn’t do himself any favors by drawing it into the web. Could the imbecilic Trump that he paints here (which strong evidence tells us is accurate) be truly capable of making such conclusions?
By the time we reach the final third (or so) of You Can’t Spell America Without Me, the text effectively unravels. In Chapter 27, “We’re Both Stronger and Know the Score”, Anthony Scaramucci is the shining light that burns out before he can wear out his welcome: “Finally got The Mooch hired! He’ll fix our communications…” Immediately later, in a way we can probably imagine replicated Trump’s real response, we get this:
“The Mooch didn’t work out, and because he never officially worked at the White House — that’s 100 percent true, you can look it up — he wasn’t actually fired, so no harm no foul. Plus, I made him famous, just like I made Reince and Spicer and Omarosa famous. I think they’re grateful. They should be.”
If there’s any theme to You Can’t Spell America Without Me, any clear mission statement to cut through the stream of nonsense that has been Trump’s America since November, 2016, it’s probably that paragraph. Trump has made them famous, and they are most likely very grateful. The problem with depending on one paragraph, or several clear and biting moments throughout these pages, is that they’re too few and far between. There aren’t many political parodies written within the midst of the regime that stand the test of time. Philip Roth’s Our Gang (1971) was a devious, brief (224 page) all-dialogue novel about the Nixon administration that came out three years into the man’s first term. You Can’t Spell America Without Me is a meal that’s been rushed through the cooking process, stuffed with random ingredients, and served to a public that’s still digesting the appetizer. Had Baldwin and Andersen been patient enough to process their ingredients, mix and match amounts, and keep everything in the oven long enough to get a crisp brown outer layer, if you will, the results would have been worth the effort.
You Can’t Spell America Without Me isn’t so much half-baked as it is poorly realized. Wait until your target crashes on his own accord and then write the full story. When that glorious day comes, a greater meal than this will be served on every literary table.