Who Is America? Reveals an America Most People Would Rather Deny
In all the discussion of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest series, Who Is America?, very little has been said about the show itself. Critics have debated the effectiveness of Baron Cohen’s style of satire in the Age of Trump, while centrist viewers have worried that his “gotcha!” style of humour, especially when targeting conservatives, serves only to deepen the mistrust right-wingers have for the news media and the left-wing political world. Progressive commentators have decried the ruthless edge to Baron Cohen’s humour that lacks any proposal for how to fix the dysfunction of the world we live in. None of this commentary addressed the question at the show’s centre: “Who is America?”
After the finale aired on August 26, 2018, these same critics finally addressed the show’s central question, only to say that it failed to give any sort of coherent answer. This is a dreadful oversight and indicative of how Who Is America? is too confrontational, satirical, and ruthless for most people’s tastes. Not only does Baron Cohen’s Showtime series stand as a true work of satire in an age of “clapter”—in which so-called satirists and comedians like John Oliver and Seth Meyers merely point out the deficiencies of Donald Trump and his ilk as a replacement for humour and fans clap in approval instead of laugh in response—but it paints a portrait of how monstrous America is in the current day.
This said, Baron Cohen’s method for revealing the insanity of America is not as obvious as it appears. To be sure, he does continue his Ali G and Borat method of goading his interview subjects into revealing their prejudices and stupidity via his caricatured interviewer personalities. But I don’t want to focus on that here. Instead, I want to highlight how Baron Cohen uses the unspoken assumptions that undergird these interviews to reveal a core dysfunction in how Americans deal with out-groups, whether outsiders to America or those on opposite sides of the US culture war.
In short, Who Is America? reveals the insanity of Americans by confirming all of their biases and prejudices in every interview. Every single interview subject is presented with a caricature of their views of their political enemies and/or perceived outsiders, and every single interview subject accepts those ridiculous views at face value, proving that these individuals see people who exist outside their political group as cartoons or far worse.
It’s not an accident that the majority of Baron Cohen’s characters in Who Is America? are foreigners. Like in Da Ali G Show, Baron Cohen uses his buffoonish caricatures of what Americans think of foreigners to lower their defenses and reveal insidious aspects about American life. In the following, I’ve broken down the ways that Baron Cohen uses each of his individual characters in Who Is America? to reveal the unsavoury aspects of the American character and lay bare the confounding dysfunction of American thought.
Widely dismissed as the least-effective of Baron Cohen’s characters on Who Is America?, OMGWhizzboyOMG! is a Scandinavian YouTuber who does unboxing videos of Shopkins while chatting politics with conservative guests like sheriffs Joe Arpaio and David Clarke. The OMGWhizzboyOMG! segments are all about juxtaposition: a strange man dressed as a child discusses issues like Antifa and far-right protests while unwrapping children’s toys. On the surface, this resembles our bizarre reality and is almost mundane—and therein lies its effectiveness.
The OMGWhizzboyOMG! segments comment on how rampant consumerism and far-right politics have combined within American culture. Along with Reddit and Twitter, YouTube has become the primary vehicle for delivering far-right politics to young people. That these same people are also obsessed with collectibles and fan culture is not seen as an aberration, but a logical extension of their cultural preoccupations; to them, being a radical conservative is merely belonging to another fandom. That Joe Arpaio and David Clarke agreed to bash Antifa and defend far-right protesters while playing with miniature doughnut toys reveals how normalized far right discourse is in online youth content like PewDiePie and Logan Paul. The fact that it’s seen as mundane and not worthy of comment is frightening.
Baron Cohen’s British ex-con character, Rick Sherman, is the least abrasive of his characters on Who Is America? and the most straightforwardly satirical. With a soft-spoken lisp and gentle demeanor, Baron Cohen recounts horrors about life in British prisons as he attempts to break into the American art world. Baron Cohen uses Sherman to target people within America’s artistic class, including art gallery coordinators, megaclub DJs, and food critics. In the first episode, Rick Sherman presents paintings made from his own excrement. In another episode, he designs EDM beats comprising sounds of men being stabbed and raped. In his final appearance, he presents a prison-inspired tasting menu which culminates with a piece of meat that Sherman claims is human.
Baron Cohen’s methods here are exaggerated and conventional from the first segment, but that doesn’t make them ineffective. In fact, the Rick Sherman segments reveal the pretensions of the art scene and the pathological desire for originality and edginess that drives the world of high art. In the art gallery segment, the gallery owner describes Sherman as a great artist because of how he uses the tools available to him to express his pain. In the food segment, the food critic eats the “human” meat after a few moments of hesitation and proclaims that it “melts on the palette” and is the most tender piece of meat he’s ever eaten. A few moments later, he even records a thank-you message to the parents of the young Chinese dissident he supposedly just ate. Although Baron Cohen manipulates the segments through editing, the casual way that his interview subjects accept the ugliness of Sherman’s art speaks to how little interest in art these gatekeepers actually have. For these people, artistic substance does not matter; all that matters is innovation and edginess. Thus, in an America that has lost interest in substance, only the most outrageous art is worthy of celebration and commentary. Everything else is blasé.
Presented as an Italian billionaire, fashion photographer, and philanthropist, Gio Monaldo illuminates the lust for fame that drives so many American celebrities and cultural icons. As Gio Monaldo, Baron Cohen interviews reality TV stars, entrepreneurs, and an infamous American icon. He coaxes them into debasing themselves in the name of a good cause or in order to make money. In one interview, he convinces a former The Bachelor contestant, Corinne Olympios, to be photoshopped into images of her helping Ebola victims. He even gets her to lie about stopping an African warlord from killing thousands of people and has her do a PSA about helping child soldiers by donating money to arm them with proper weapons. In another segment, he gets a luxury yacht dealer to agree to build a yacht for Bashar al-Assad that’s capable of killing migrants and storing people for human trafficking. In the season finale, he even goads O.J. Simpson with endless euphemisms about murdering his wife.
In all these segments, Baron Cohen eradicates any notion that his interview subjects have good intentions, even if they’re claiming as much. Furthermore, he shows how hungry for fame and money these pop-culture figures are. The most telling aspect in all these segments is that the interview subjects never question Monaldo’s escalation of demands (at least in the edit we’re presented). The reality TV star never refuses to lie about doing charity work. The luxury yacht salesman never says he can’t equip the boat with the tools necessary for committing war crimes. O.J. Simpson may never admit that he killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, but he also doesn’t leave the room, clearly too hungry for the small porcel of fame and money that’s afforded him by playing on his image as a murderer. He also doesn’t challenge Gio when he suggests that he killed his own wife, so he understands what O.J. must be going through; it demonstrates O.J.’s unspoken understanding that other people who share O.J.’s social strata (such as rich, European photographers) can get away with such crimes.
In all these moments, Baron Cohen shows how shameless these individuals are, and how normalized their behaviour is. The fact that many critics found nothing troubling about the reality TV star’s PSA for child soldiers, for instance, is further proof that the severe dysfunction of these people is not only acknowledged, but accepted in American culture.
Perhaps the most effective of all of Baron Cohen’s creations in Who Is America? (and certainly the most influential on reality, as several of his interview subjects have had their careers ruined as a result of appearing on the show), Erran Morad is the quintessential Israeli badass who comes to America to properly arm them against homosexuals, radical feminists, Mexican human traffickers, and Muslim terrorists. Most of the politicians that Erran Morad interviews, including former senatorial candidate Roy Moore and vice president Dick Cheney, agree to be on the show because Baron Cohen disarms them by celebrating their unwavering support of the State of Israel. However amusing Baron Cohen’s segments with Moore and Cheney are, they don’t reveal as much about America as Baron Cohen’s interactions with more ordinary right-wingers.
In the first episode, Erran Morad convinces a series of state senators and Republican elected officials to endorse his Kinderguardians program, which aims to equip pre-schoolers with firearms in order to combat potential school shootings. At one point, Morad says that “The only thing that stops a bad man with a gun is a good boy with a gun.” These Republicans are all too eager to agree, unable to recognize the absurdity of giving deadly weapons to children who aren’t even potty-trained. This segment made the biggest splash in the media of all of Baron Cohen’s segments, but this interview is not the most disturbing of Morad’s encounters with Americans during the series. If anything, the Morad segments grow only more disturbing as the series progresses.
In later segments, Morad trains Americans to combat Jihadi terrorists in their workplaces or during what they see as inevitable assaults on their white American liberty. For instance, he teaches men how to arm themselves with ham and pretend to be Muslim (which, in this case, involves wearing a Genie costume and playing a snake flute) in order to ward off potential terror attacks, or how to bite the penis of their attackers in order to protect themselves. The racism and insanity that Baron Cohen reveals isn’t restricted to targeting Muslims in these segments; in perhaps the most disturbing section of the entire series, Morad gets a series of men to admit that they believe that Mexican Quinceaneras (which are special birthday parties for 15-year-old girls that mark their entry into adulthood) are vehicles used by Mexicans to rape teenage girls and that potential Mexican rapists and human traffickers can be lured by guacamole and free beer. He even gets one of the men to dress up as a girl to be bait and gets them to drug the food at the mock party they hold. Everything Morad says is exaggerated, ridiculous, racist, and borderline evil, and yet, the men he talks to never question his declarations for one minute. That’s because they believe that the fictions he discusses are realities and are invested in Morad’s presentation of himself as a badass Israeli.
In American media narratives, the citizens of Israel are seen as the ultimate badasses because they are constantly bombarded by rockets from Hamas, have to join the military, and are seen as the only western individuals in the entire Middle East, living “normal” lives while combating Jihadi terror at all moments of the day. The fact is, these white American men that Baron Cohen interviews see themselves as not so different from their perception of the average Israeli citizen. To the interview subjects, Sharia Law already exists in the United States, Mexican gangsters and human traffickers are flooding the border with drugs and stealing young girls, and they are the only individuals capable of standing up to this encroaching evil.
Not only do these segments reveal the casual hatred that many Americans have for Muslims and Mexicans, but they also reveal a delusional ego on the part of the right-wing American male. These people think that foreigners are so evil, and that they themselves are so powerful and capable, that they genuinely desire for the world to go to hell just so they can showcase their own prowess. None of these men ever bat an eye during these segments, and that is truly frightening.
Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. PhD and Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello
Unlike the other characters on the show, Billy Wayne Rudick Jr. PhD and Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello are presented as Americans. However, they are as much fictional exaggerations as any of Baron Cohen’s foreign characters. Both men are oafs and encapsulations of all the negative stereotypes the people on opposing sides of the political spectrum believe about each other. The segments with Billy Wayne and Dr. Nira Cain reveal the deep resentment and loathing Americans have for their fellow citizens.
Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. PhD is an obese southerner who peddles in Alt-Right conspiracy theories and challenges the popular narratives of the mainstream media. He only interviews left-wingers and centrists, like Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, and Ted Koppel, and presents them with supposedly-damning facts about liberal conceptions of America or famous liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton. In the Bernie Sanders segment, he uses nonsensical math to try to argue for the value of moving 99 Percent of Americans into the One Percent. With Howard Dean, he presents the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton is in fact a man, and then challenges Dean to present evidence of the contrary.
To the men he interviews, Billy Wayne is nothing but a joke. The interview subjects never grow angry with him nor do they earnestly try to convince him, because he is nothing more than a confirmation of their beliefs that right-wing Americans are stupid and delusional. Ted Koppel politely ends the interview. Bernie Sanders seems baffled, while Howard Dean laughs off the ridiculousness of the interview. That all of these famous left-wingers and centrists chose to talk to Billy Wayne on camera speaks to their need to project a self-image of reasonableness and openness, along with a willingness to reaching across the aisle in bipartisan dialogue, but the interviews themselves show that they have no genuine interest in understanding figures like Billy Wayne or why they think what they do. They see men like him as fools and nothing more, and instantly dismiss him—even though there are at least 35 percent of the population that believe things very similar to Billy Wayne, and that that segment of the population votes regularly.
The right-wingers and Middle Americans who interact with Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello react to him much the same way the left-wingers react to Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. If Billy Wayne is an oaf, Nira Cain is a pedant and a bore. He sports a hideous ponytail, wears a pussy hat, and uses jargony post-modern phrases about intersectionality and political correctness at every turn. In the first episode, he has dinner at the home of a Republican delegate who voted to elect Trump as the Republican Candidate for President and proceeds to discuss how his female partner (he refuses to use the term “wife”) has entered into an extramarital affair with a dolphin. Later, he explains how his daughter “free bleeds” onto the American flag during menstruation, as per the instructions of the Clinton Foundation.
In later episodes, he reads his inappropriate children’s book on sexuality that discusses bukkake to a Republican lawmaker, tells the inhabitants of a small town that the Clinton Foundation is building the largest mosque outside of the Middle East in their town centre, and forces a doula to enact a birthing process for his sympathetic pregnancy. All of these situations are absurd and show Dr. Nira Cain embodying the worst impulses of progressive America, speaking down to his subjects, insulting them through a veneer of respectable language, and abolishing any sense of rationality or fidelity to reality through his rhetorical hopscotching.
The people that Dr. Nira Cain talks to grow more angry with him than any of the liberals Billy Wayne Ruddick interviews, but that is in keeping with the part they play. In America, liberals project themselves as reasonable and open-minded, while conservatives project themselves as righteous and the champions of common sense. However, in none of these encounters with Dr. Nira Cain do the conservatives profess any amazement or genuine confusion as to his ridiculous statements. For instance, the GOP delegate couple in the first episode don’t cast doubt on Nira Cain’s comments that his wife has sex with a dolphin; instead, they simply react shocked, but receptive to the fact that such an act occurs, as if all liberals hold such debased views about sexuality. When Dr. Nira Cain gets the doula to help him eject a baby doll from his anus during his process of sympathetic pregnancy, the doula doesn’t tell him he’s nuts or appear aghast that a liberal man would go to some disgusting lengths to “strengthen his relationship” with his pregnant partner; he simply helps deliver the doll, confirming the implicit belief that “of course some liberal men do this.”
Both Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. and Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello embody the two sides of the American political spectrum. They are caricatures, but they are accepted as fact because the realities of American politics have descended into the realm of absurdity. They are treated as real and taken at face value because the opposing sides of American politics genuinely believe their ideological opponents to be monsters. By merely existing and interacting with ordinary Americans who accept their existence, Billy Wayne Ruddick and Dr. Nira Cain confirm the overwhelming and universal contempt the American population has for those with opposing political beliefs. They are Sacha Baron Cohen’s greatest weapons for revealing how broken the political discourse is in American society.
Who Is America? is essentially Sacha Baron Cohen’s version of the Milgram Experiments. He presents himself as a figure of authority or an individual who disarms his interview subjects by confirming their biases and prejudices about the people around them. In so doing, he reveals the true character of many sides of the American identity and the deep dysfunction that permeates the nation. Who Is America? is the funniest show of the past year, but it’s also the most disturbing. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale or Westworld, it doesn’t rely on fantasy or alternative versions of reality to show us a dystopia. Instead, it simply peels back the surface layers of modern America and shows the deep ugliness that has permeated all aspects of its character. It’s true satire, but like so much good satire, it borders on horror in its perceptiveness. It seems that in popular culture, some truths are better left uncovered, especially if they’re about the target audience.
Who Is America? (Showtime, 2018)
Created by Sacha Baron Cohen; starring Sacha Baron Cohen.