Aug 03, 20183m read
Has Sacha Baron Cohen Discovered America?
By Derek Willie
“Who is America?” asks Sacha Baron Cohen in a curious interrogation of American politics, and perhaps more controversially, of the country as a whole. Hoping to explore “the diverse individuals, from the infamous to the unknown across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate our unique nation,” the Showtime series has attracted tepid praise and intense criticism from viewers of all ideological convictions, with its most prominent detractors on the right. It’s no surprise, though, that conservatives have lambasted the show: most of the “infamous and unknown” that Cohen bamboozled have been either Republican politicians or Trump voters. The British comedian even provoked the resignation of Georgia State Rep. Jason Spencer by pretending to be an Israeli anti-terrorism expert named Erran Morad and coaxing the Republican legislator into shouting racist epithets, among other, equally profane slurs.
Of Cohen’s motley stock of characters, the most prominent — and provocative — pick up on obvious tropes in American politics. Billy Wayne Ruddick, for instance, is a right-wing conspiracy theorist and proprietor of the fake website truthbrary.org — a not-so-hyperbolic caricature of Alex Jones and the infamous fake news hub InfoWars (as Ruddick, Cohen brewed controversy for supposedly impersonating a disabled veteran in an interview with Former Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin). On the other hand, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello — a Gender Studies Lecturer donning Birkenstocks, an iconic pussy hat, and a t-shirt emblazoned with NPR’s logo — travels throughout the country in an earnest yet guileless attempt to “heal the divide,” managing to alienate nearly everyone he talks to in a series of social faux pas typical of American liberals afflicted with white guilt.
“Cohen shows us that the answer to the series’ foundational question — “Who is America?” — isn’t always a pleasant one.”
What makes Cohen’s cringe-worthy impersonations stick, though, is how closely they mirror actual expressions of American political identity. His characters barely exaggerate — marking the comedian’s expert, if not uncanny ability to stereotype and mock American political personalities — but also, and perhaps more importantly, pointing viewers to the absurd reality of American politics today. Sure, Cohen intensifies certain aspects of this absurdity for comedic effect, but it’s hard to watch the show without seeing some kind of resemblance between his characters, the pundits we watch on TV, and to some extent, ourselves.
If, however, Cohen’s characters don’t do enough to expose the absurd truth of American politics, the people they deceive do. Viewers are both eager to see Cohen succeed in his ruse and deathly afraid that he will. We want to believe that Republican Members of Congress, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, wouldn’t endorse a proposal to arm 4-year-olds with semi-automatic rifles. Or that residents of Kingman, Arizona wouldn’t shout racist vitriol after hearing about a fake plan to build a mosque in their town. But as much as we might want to believe Barack Obama’s, and most politicians’, quixotic portrait of the “United States of America,” Cohen shows us that the answer to the series’ foundational question — “Who is America?” — isn’t always a pleasant one.
“It’s as if Cohen rose from satirical silence to meet what could be the challenge of his career: to expose, for better or worse, the people who brought us our current political circus.”
Aside from its flourishes of ribaldry and toilet humor, Borat was at its core a satire of both American culture and Americans’ own conception of it. Is Cohen’s latest venture, then, really a shameless “I told you so”? Is he reminding us that the America of Borat is the America of Trump and thus the America of today?
While Who is America? might not be the comedian’s first foray into American political and cultural life, it is the first since Donald Trump ascended to the presidency in January 2017 — an event that, at times, seems to be the show’s raison d’être. It’s as if Cohen rose from satirical silence to meet what could be the challenge of his career: to expose, for better or worse, the people who brought us our current political circus. And not just to expose them, but to remind us, in an explosive epilogue, that while we enjoyed the rhetoric of unity and equality, change and hope — he, Sacha Baron Cohen, was right about all of us.