While many journalists have risen to the occasion of the Trump era, the mainstream media as an institution has notoriously struggled to cover the message board misogynists, meme makers, partisan shock jocks, and the online ecosystem that’s fueled the furthest extremes of American political discourse since the 2016 election. The lesson: The old media is not prepared for the new trolls.
Which might be why, for the last week, the internet has been glued to a host of cryptic teasers, trailers, and reports surrounding the premiere of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s new surprise Showtime series, Who Is America? The initial reports suggested that Baron Cohen — the creator of characters such as Ali G, Borat, and Brüno — was planning to focus his surreptitious brand of comedy on US politics and politicians in the Trump era.
The week began with a quick trailer that showed former vice president Dick Cheney signing a "waterboarding kit" and ended with a series of news reports and furious statements from politicians like Roy Moore, Sarah Palin, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio admitting they’d been duped by Baron Cohen’s “evil,” “exploitive” and “truly sick” interview tactics. By Sunday morning, a bootlegged clip of the first episode, in which Baron Cohen convinces former and current members of Congress to back a program that would arm kindergartners with guns (“Kinderguardians”), ricocheted around Twitter. In a matter of days, Baron Cohen didn’t just break into an impenetrable news cycle, he upended it, disorienting an untold number of bullshit artists, lawmakers, and anyone too quick to accept an interview request. The trolls, it seems, were not prepared for Baron Cohen.
This is far from Baron Cohen’s first attempt at this style of subversive comedy. Over the last 15 years, Baron Cohen has duped celebrities, racist frat bros, and Donald Trump. The shtick might be old, but Baron Cohen’s new interviews — particularly his “Kinderguardians” segment — feel perfect for both our current moment and many of the interview subjects he’s picked. Despite the awkwardness and ethical ambiguity, 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. Around the time Baron Cohen’s character tricks a former congressman to advocate on camera for 4-year-olds to familiarize themselves with the “rudimentary use of mortars,” it becomes clear that Baron Cohen — a consummate troll himself — is a perfect foil to the current political climate of grift and trolling.
Over the last two years, the press has played into the hands of insurgent political groups like the pro-Trump media and the alt-right’s trolling efforts. In 2017, 60 Minutes and the New York Times were bested by a pro-Trump Twitter personality. NBC News and Megyn Kelly allowed Alex Jones and Infowars to steamroll them in what became a weeklong embarrassing troll that ended with Kelly getting scooped on her own interview. Around the holidays, the New York Times published a sympathetic profile of a neo-Nazi. None of this is new; 2016 was arguably worse. Kremlin-linked troll accounts on Twitter duped 3,000 global news outlets into thinking they were real Americans, embedding their tweets into more than 11,000 news articles in the months before the 2016 election.
Throughout each flub, the legacy media largely adhered to the traditional rules of newsgathering, many of which assume a (mostly) good faith effort on both the part of the interviewer and interviewees. But this tactic proves disastrous against entities like the alt-right, pro-Trump media, and many of the lawmakers who’ve joined Trump in his chants of “fake news,” who delight in subverting traditional media in any way possible.
As the last two years have shown, the #MAGA style of politics is less an ideology than it is about breaking the system through an insurgent style of media hacking and alternate-reality creation. There’s maybe no better example than last January’s #ReleaseTheMemo campaign. In the span of a few weeks, Rep. Devin Nunes tossed out dubious allegations against his own government, weaponized the pro-Trump media, and forced the country to obsess and speculate over a largely political (and ultimately underwhelming) document. Basically: He broke the system.
Though the stakes may be somewhat lower, Baron Cohen’s brand of comedy wields a similar kind of recklessness. Comedians like Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, and even Samantha Bee have largely reframed their comedy as a form of resistance to Trump and Trumpism, but do so while adhering to the traditional rules of late-night television. Others, like comedian Kathy Griffin — who famously and tastelessly posed for a photo shoot with a fake severed Trump head — have tried and failed to push the boundaries of acceptable satire. Baron Cohen, however, isn’t just unafraid but giddy to break the system and all the conventions and civility that come with it. He wholly rejects the "they go low, we go high" ethos, opting instead to wrestle in the mud with his subjects.
The show’s attention to detail is crucial to the payoff of his jokes: From the gun lobby sycophants to politicians’ hair-trigger acceptance of TV appearance requests, Baron Cohen has been paying attention to everything that’s broken in American society and is happy to exploit it for laughs. Both in his show and in the personalities he’s constructed online — his character, Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, has an unhinged caps lock–laden Twitter account and a perfectly rendered right-wing parody website, truthbrary.org, that appears to have been quietly operating for months — Baron Cohen satirizes a country that’s at once divided and experiencing a collective online nervous breakdown.
Since the 2016 election, a few liberal elites toyed with the idea of creating a “Breitbart of the left,” seemingly abandoning the idea on the premise that it is too hard to replicate the success of fringe conservative media without going into murky ethical territory. But in Baron Cohen, the left might have something that, while not quite Steve Bannon’s “killing machine,” mirrors some of conservative media’s ruthlessness. Though all of Baron Cohen’s guests know they’re being filmed, the comedian’s disguises, fake personalities, and phony show premises, recall in part the hidden camera “exposes” conducted by Project Veritas and its citizen journalist troll, James O’Keefe (albeit without the production values of a giant, publicly traded media company).
Any resemblance Who Is America’s tactics bear to the pro-Trump media apparatus only makes the outrage from the Roy Moores and Sarah Palins of the world more comedically sweet. Like any good troll, Baron Cohen knows how to checkmate his subject so that he or she looks foolish regardless of the outcome. Admit you’ve been duped — as some, like former representative Joe Walsh, have done — and you’re gullible and ashamed; protest and you’re a poor sport or a hypocrite. Either way, Baron Cohen wins.
It’s a cynical view that — much like the show — isn’t very comfortable to sit with for very long. But that sinking feeling is very much the point. Baron Cohen is a worthy adversary for the most disingenuous in our politics and culture. He pits bad faith against bad faith and the result is something that seems like the truth — but it isn’t easy to watch. And somehow, that feels fitting for our current moment.