When Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G show premiered on HBO in 2000, the idea of conning the powerful into saying something flagrantly stupid on camera felt somewhat novel, daring even. But in our current Trumpian hellscape, a world dominated by overt scams, cons, fake news, and other blatant forms of flimflammery, Cohen's new Showtime series, Who Is America?, miraculously manages to rise above the average inane political satire and actually make you laugh. In a world run by trolls, Cohen manages to out-troll even the most pernicious bullshitters.
Even before the first episode of Who Is America? premiered on Saturday, there was a slew of outrage from conservatives conned by Cohen. It gave the show the best PR it could possibly ask for—former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, disgraced former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and former Congressman Joe Walsh all angrily took to social media to chide the comedian for duping them into appearing on the show.
But even after Showtime teased a video of Cohen getting Dick Cheney to sign a waterboard kit, I was dubious that Who Is America? could possibly live up to the hype. After all, American political culture has only become more insidious since the Bush era—in 2009, the ultra-conservative Project Veritas came to prominence via a hidden-camera sting on ACORN, a national organization that sought to help low-income Americans register to vote. And the idea that politicians were hiding their truly toxic views from the public also seems passé, since Donald Trump managed to get elected president by being outspokenly awful. What could Cohen really expose? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Who Is America? opens with an introduction to one of Cohen's four new characters—Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a Trump-supporting, mainstream media–hating renegade who runs a website called TRUTHBRARY.org (as opposed to lie-brary) and uses a wheelchair simply for funsies. In the first interview, he attempts to dupe a dubious Bernie Sanders, who gives the character a heavy dose of side-eye. Unlike the conservatives Cohen expertly trolls later in the episode, Sanders manages to avoid looking like a complete dumbass. The bit inadvertently highlights the Vermont senator's greatest political gift—which I can attest to as someone who has also interviewed him—his ability to stay on message even in the most unlikely scenarios.
"Namaste, I'm Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, and I'm a cis-gender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize," Cohen says in a voiceover introducing his next character, who dons an NPR T-shirt and a hot pink pussy hat. Cain-N’Degeocello, balding and ponytailed, has dinner with two members of the South Carolina Republican Party, "a couple who suffers from white privilege," as he describes them. Throughout the interview, Cohen informs the couple that to combat sexism, he forces his son to pee sitting down and his daughter to pee standing up, and explains how he's made peace with his wife having an affair with a dolphin. We then meet Cohen's third character, Ricky Sherman, an ex-con who is an aspiring artist who uses bodily fluids as paint. He meets with a fine art consultant named Christy, who is unbelievably down with Sherman's fecal-based artwork. At the end of the segment, she gifts Cohen with some strands of her pubic hair for his collection.
But Who Is America? goes beyond that run-of-mill trolling when we meet the fourth character, an Israeli ex-Mossad agent named Erran Morad, who manages to persuade a slew of prominent Republicans and pro-gun activists into voicing their support for a program that gives toddlers “gunimals”—firearms dressed up as plush toys. In an interview with Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of firearm lobbying group Gun Owners of America, Cohen asks in a heavy Israeli accent, "Do you think these liberals are using these school shooting to further their anti-tragedy agenda?" (They're trying, Pratt replies.)
Later, Cohen has Pratt look into the camera and say, "Toddlers are pure. Uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality. They don't worry if it's politically correct to shoot a mentally-deranged gunman, they'll just do it. The science behind [the "gunimals"] program is proven… children under five… have elevated levels of the pheromone Blink 182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway to the Wiz Khalifa 40 percent faster."
Cohen gets more respectable figures on board with his scarily absurd initiative. Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher of California and Joe Wilson of South Carolina, along with former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, are all eager to support Cohen's fake guns-for-kids program. The most surprising part about actual Republican congressmen supporting giving guns to babies is that Cohen had to dupe them into doing so.
Former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, who on the show says, “In less than a month, less than a month, a first grader can become a first grenader,” claimed he was tricked into saying that after the comedian "flew [him] out to DC for some made up friend of Israel award."
"I gotta live with it," he wrote on Twitter.
Indeed he does.
Who Is America? is at its best when Cohen uses deceit to show these powerful conservatives for who they really are—a group of men whose brains have been so broken by the insanity of contemporary political discourse that they are willing to be duped into championing giving literal babies firearms. As BuzzFeed's Charlie Warzel wrote, "There’s a grim catharsis at play while watching Baron Cohen bait a gun rights advocate into making an infomercial to sell firearms to toddlers."
The latest iteration of Cohen's unique brand of headline-making fake news is not for the easily offended, nor is it for anyone looking for comedy with a dose of activism—Cohen's comedy is less about conveying a woke political message and more about utilizing preexisting mayhem to produce the best material possible. Though it was the tricking of conservatives that got the most attention, Cohen has no particular ideological compass, and there is no uplifting message at the core of the show. It takes you into a world very close to ours, reveals it for being fundamentally absurd, and invites us to laugh. What else can you do?
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