This interview originally appeared on the Trumpcast, Slate’s podcast about the national emergency we call Donald Trump.
Slate: So, what possessed you to write a song about Donald Trump?
Aimee Mann: Well, this is all part of Dave Eggers’ project. I think the conceit of the project was that, because he kept hearing at Trump rallies these Rolling Stones and classic rock songs that clearly he didn’t really have permission to use at the rallies, people should write songs for him to use at his rallies. But then that turned into pro-Hillary, anti-Trump songs … It’s 30 musicians in the last 30 days before the election.
Highly topical music like this can sometimes go wrong. I have to say, I love this song. It’s called “Can’t You Tell.” And it’s a beautiful song. The one thing that surprised me about it was your decision to write it from inside Trump’s head, to do it in his voice, and the risk you take humanizing him a bit.
Yeah, my thoughts when given an assignment like this are just to write a song that I feel like writing. It’s not my style to write in the third person in general, and it’s not really my style to be, like, this dispassionate observer. I’m interested in seeing if there’s a way to get into someone’s head and see what their experience might be like. Honestly, the thrust of the song is that he’s in over his head, and honestly, I really do believe this: I don’t think that being president and sitting in the Oval Office and having meetings all day about state issues and domestic issues and children’s health care and education—I really don’t think that that’s his gig. I think he’s running for king. I don’t think he understands, really, or cares about what the job is. I think he’s like, “I’ll hire guys for that.” He thinks it’s like, “I’ll live in the giant mansion but I don’t need to know how to do the plumbing—you hire people!” But I think at this point, I feel like he’s got a sense that he’s in over his head, and he’s a rat in a corner, and he’s really fighting and scrapping and biting and freaking out.
And so the chorus of your song goes with that premise: “Isn’t anybody going to stop me?/ I don’t want this job./ I don’t want this job./ My God, can’t you tell/ I’m unwell?” That packs a lot in there.
Yeah, well. I don’t know what to tell you! That’s just kind of where it ended up.
You start with this scene, and I have to tell you: I was present at that scene at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011, which is what I think you’re describing.
I was about 10 feet from Donald Trump, watching him react to being mocked by the president in front of the assembled press corps and the nation by extension. And it was sort of amazing: There was smoke coming out of his ears, and I remember looking at him and thinking, If this guy could just laugh, if he could just pretend to laugh, he doesn’t have to be the butt of the joke to the entire world. But he couldn’t. You were watching him kind of collapse inside, being unable to take this level of mockery.
Yeah, it was rough. It was rough because you could see what was happening. I think that narcissism is, like, you believe that how things look are the entirety of your persona and yourself. And all your opinions and your achievements—that’s you. There’s no inner sense of self that’s separate from that. So if any part of the balloon is poked, the entire thing deflates. That was a rough roast, but most of my friends are comics, so I’m kind of used to that talk, and I also know that wasn’t even devoid of affection. As much as President Obama had been attacked by Donald Trump, it wasn’t vindictive. It was his way of being able to tell the truth about how he felt, because that birther stuff was really pretty shitty and I think hurtful—personally hurtful. But with Obama, I don’t even think it was like, “And I’ll get you.” It’s too bad Trump couldn’t see that there was affection in that. But I think that’s when he was like, “I’ll show you all.”
It’s interesting. You referred to narcissistic personality disorder. We’ve talked about that on the show a lot. One thing psychiatrists will tell you about people who suffer from NPD is they don’t know they’re sick, and they can’t be treated, because to be treated you have to accept that you have a problem. And part of narcissism is just this utter inability to see yourself the way they others might see you.
Yeah, I think that’s a big problem, and it’s especially a problem if you are really wealthy and powerful, because you’re able to put away all the signs that come to normal people that maybe your behavior isn’t great. There’s not going to be a colleague that says, “Hey, Donald, you’ve really gone too far. That’s not cool!” That person will just be disappeared.
But at the same time, you get it into two words: “I’m unwell.” There is a level at which someone like that must know there’s something wrong, and also in Trump’s case, headed for a cliff because if your whole life is about winning, to lose the presidency—which it sure looks like he’s headed to do—must just be a crushing blow on an unimaginable scale.
I can’t imagine it. If your values and your value scale is that winning is everything and it’s the only thing, then first of all, you’re going to be disappointed and sad and crushed a lot, because most people just can’t win at that consistent level. And secondly, he’s engineered this train that now he’s running to this flaming end. I can’t imagine what’s going to happen. He’s shot the moon, and it’s going to be over. How do you recover from that? That’s all you’ve got, by your own value system. That’s all there was. There’s no love, there’s no higher power, there’s no “Well, at least I did some good.” Other people can get consolation, but he’s got nothing.
I’m really struck by your ability to have sympathy for him, though, and I think it’s admirable. One, it enables you to think up a song like this and use that imaginative sympathy. But I have to say, speaking for myself, I’m so angry at what Trump is doing to the country and how destructive the campaign is. It’s really hard for me to get my head in a place where I can think, Maybe he can’t help himself, maybe he was born this way. There is some level at which he’s not in control of his behavior, and that’s the point at which you have to have some sympathy for people.
I don’t think he is anymore. I think that it’s his fault, because he walked himself into it, to a place where he no longer had control over his behavior because his value system also was the value system of making women bend to your will, doing whatever you want—that they’re not really people, so their cries of “No” don’t count or matter. But you know, the thing about the pussy-grab thing that struck me was, it’s not only bragging about sexual assault, but he’s also saying, “It’s like a magnet.” He is describing really compulsive behavior. I kind of think that’s true. I don’t think he can help himself, and there is a thing inside him that’s just I’m so miserable, I can’t feel miserable anymore, the only thing that I believe will make me feel better is to jump on whatever woman’s next to me. I think that there is a compulsive element. But also, we don’t really want that in a president.
I’m also angry, but I think at this point, it’s like being angry at a rabid dog. You just have to solve the problem and get the dog in a cage, and don’t let it bite any more people. And why spend time on “Can it control itself? Should it?” You know what? It can’t, and it’s not controlling itself. We have to stop him. He will not stop himself.
And you’ve sort of gotten to the next stage of the discussion. He hasn’t been stopped yet, but he’s certainly pointed toward being stopped. And then there is a question about Trump: sick person or bad person? Or what is the balance between those things? It’s very interesting. I think the deeper you go, the more you gravitate toward sick person. I guess you can be a sick person and a bad person.
It’s kind of the same. They’re all choices. He’s the product of 50 gazillion bad choices that he’s made. Jesus, when the tape came out, if he had come out and said, “You know what, when I listened to myself talk about women, I can’t believe I used to be like that. What a terrible way to treat women or talk about them, as if I had the right.” And then we would go, “Alright, man, I think maybe you’re bullshitting but well done!” But he can’t even conceive of a guy like that, who takes responsibility for his own past behavior. He can’t even conceive of what that is—that’s how little he’s willing to ever admit that he’s done anything wrong. And it’s just one choice after another. Every time he steps up to the podium at a rally, there’s another choice, there’s another opportunity—“Nope! I’m going to do the wrong thing!” Every time.
But you really get it in the song, the way in which his sickness, his unwellness, is chosen. As you say, it’s the product of a million choices, and you see it that way rather than as a genetic inheritance that he has no control over. Something he’s developed.
I don’t think he’s bipolar or something. I think he’s narcissistic. They say recovery from alcoholism is one step at a time, you know? I think getting to this point is also one step at a time. You start out being a little bratty, and if nobody ever corrects your behavior, then you might think, Well, maybe this is the way to be. It’s being rewarded. Doesn’t he seem like an overgrown child who can’t stop himself from eating 10 popsicles in a row? He just seems like that guy who nobody ever said “no” to.
This interview has been condensed and edited.