There is a key stretch late in the second episode of the Showtime series Who Is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest project in the vein of stunt satire like his famous characters Borat and Ali G, which articulates what the new comedy series is really about—provided it’s about anything more than making us laugh.
In disguise as liberal college professor Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, Cohen hosts a town hall in the down-and-out town of Kingman, Ariz. It’s where the sort of majority-white, majority-Republican, working-class Americans who support President Donald Trump live, despite receiving no palpable benefits from said president’s promises to boost the economy, or “Make America Great Again,” and so on. (Kingman is the county seat of Arizona’s Mohave County, which overwhelmingly voted Trump in the 2016 election.) It was the perfect place for Cohen to lay his trap.
The pitch is this: juice up Kingman’s economy and lure tourists by investing in an enormous super-mosque, built to attract Muslim pilgrims from around the world. The architectural mock-ups imagine a huge structure looming above the sleepy desert town, mom-and-pop shops with signs written in Arabic, and two-lane streets occupied by camels and women dressed in full niqabs. The crowd of concerned citizens becomes livid, and their anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fever pitch. There are vague threats of imminent “problems” if the plans go through. One man makes a comment that Kingman’s small population of African-Americans is “lucky” to be tolerated by the white community.
This is the sort of gag that sours people on Who Is America? and on Cohen’s brand of kookily costumed pranksterism. And it’s understandable. He’s not there to facilitate an open an honest dialogue about welcoming Muslims into the community, or to assuage any existent prejudices; he’s there to bait those prejudices. He’s there to expose the working-class, white community as Islamophobic, and then to allow them to expose themselves as racist against African-Americans. The deck is stacked against them. What chance do they have?
But then something else happens.
After the credits, the show cuts to Jason Spencer, a Georgia state representative who, earlier in the same episode, was shown screaming the “n-word” and backing his exposed buttocks into Cohen (this time disguised as a burly, blockheaded ex-Mossad agent). Spencer tears into an anti-Islamic rant, howling an Arab-adjusted variant on the “n-word,” and then mimes the act of cutting off a would-be terrorist’s penis before eating it. After defiantly rejecting calls to resign for two days, he announced on Jul. 24 that he would resign, as if his public castigation has become part of the show’s publicity campaign.
Where Spencer’s initial appearance in the episode is meant to stir shock and disbelief—“This is an elected official?”—his reappearance at the episode’s end, following the Kingman stunt, stirs a deeper terror: This is an elected official. And these are the people that elected him.
This sequence, and Who Is America? writ large, illustrates a fundamental problem with democracy: a system in which elected officials are somehow simultaneously expected to be representatives of the popular will and embodiments of a populace’s more refined instincts—those “better angels of our nature” that Abraham Lincoln spoke about. It presents a troubling paradox. There may be, after all, no good reason to believe that a nation of racists would elect anything other than a racist. The election of Spencer is not a hiccup or kink in the democratic process, but a perverse expression of its purity. (The same may be said about Donald Trump, were it not for the fact that he lost the popular vote and was installed by the electoral college, which may more reasonably be considered a hiccupy kink in the democratic process.)
This is what Cohen seems to be expressing: that the popular will gives rise to noxious, huckster populists who deploy that will toward the nastiest of ends. But there’s something even more complicated—and considerably less despairing—going on. What Who Is America? seems to suggest is that such a popular will may itself be bogus. That the vox populi is a script being read off a teleprompter—a cluster of ideas surreptitiously planted in the public mind by private interests, then passed off as original, organic thought to be converted into power through politician conduits.
That democracy in America, in any meaningful sense, does not exist.
This is not a particularly novel lament. Following the Trump election, political scientist Larry Bartels warned about “expressive behaviour,” or the belief of making political choices based “on momentary feeling and not on some sound understanding of how those decisions will improve or hurt their life.” More alarming was a 2014 joint study between Princeton and Northwestern universities determining that the United States is better described as a plutocracy, in which “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” So, like, literally not a democracy.
Much earlier, in his biting 1926 book Notes on Democracy, American critic H.L. Mencken analyzed the history of the “democratic man” whose opinions are determined by a cadre of minority interests, and whose collective ignorance with other democratic men is very much designed to serve those interests. “What is worth knowing he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to know,” writes Mencken of the democratic subject. “The cardinal articles of his credo are the inventions of mountebanks; his heroes are mainly scoundrels.” Mencken was about as hard-nosed and elitist an S.O.B. as the canon of American letters has ever produced, but his point stands: There is no organic democratic will that is not first seeded by external, powerful interests. Like any persuasive marketing scheme, democracy in America doesn’t so much give the people what they want as tell them what it they want, then give it to them.
Such depictions of the American voting bloc, or any bloc of people living in what purports to be a democracy, as easily manipulated sheep (or “goats” in Mencken’s terms) may seems snide and howlingly condescending. Yet this feeling is somewhat alleviated when one considers that such a public can, in theory, be just as easily manipulated into understanding the conditions of the own manipulation. This is what Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jason Spencer stunt—and his other, comparably damning stunts—accomplishes.
The cringeworthiness of the segment reveals precisely how easy it is to dupe the very people vested with the public trust. By merely disguising himself as an openly anti-Arab Israeli solider—thus playing straight to certain American right-wing sympathies—Cohen is able to bend his subjects into all manner of unflattering positions. (The same character has, in other segments on Who Is America?, already convinced American lawmakers to shill for a program arming preschoolers with guns, and persuaded former vice president Dick Cheney to autograph a water-boarding kit.) If there’s any comfort to be found in seeing these people so thoroughly humiliated, it’s in the knowledge that the hucksters, mountebanks and scoundrels are themselves ludicrously impressionable. It’s the goats herding the sheep.
Mass humiliations of toady, NRA-stumping Republicans, and the resignation of a contemptible figures like Jason Spencer, may send many rushing to sing the praises of comedy and satire as precisely what we need right now. Mocking people in power on late comedy-news broadcasts is one thing. But Who Is America? offers more than some soothing, beguiling balm. It reveals, through its mocking, the very system of power itself. It exposes the fickle sympathies and corruptible character of those minority interests who pretend to embody the popular will. It exposes American democracy as what it is: a joke.
And as with any good joke, laughter is not only pleasant and cathartic. It’s also a recognition of a deeper truth.