Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand of comedy, offensive and ridiculous to be sure, has always had an adversarial and anarchic bent, skewering the powerful, tricking them into ridiculous situations, and reminding us of the human fragility of our political foes. He always seemed to know how to punch up, without delving into overly crass hate, humiliating himself as much or more than the odd politician he could convince to give an interview. He’s got a new show coming out, and it’s already getting headlines.
Aja Romano, in a piece in Vox, contends that by tricking politicians for his comedy show, Baron Cohen is giving Trumpist America more ammunition to cry “Fake News” about anything they find inconvenient or counter to their reactionary politics. By tricking predator pedo Judge Roy Moore into a fake pro-Israel event, Romano says that “Team Reality” will get only a few giggles while “Team Fake News” will abuse the situation to reaffirm their anti-media worldview. By focusing narrowly on the issue of Fake News, Romero is ignoring the systems of belief that undergird conservative and reactionary politics.
Similarly to the cautious liberal take on Jordan Peterson, this reading on the conservative movement gives them too much credit and acts as though they are operating in a similar evidence based worldview as your average Vox reader. This seems rooted in an idea that the Fake News paranoia in Trumpland is based on evidence rather than a purposely constructed narrative that helps explain their world. Examine some of the most prevalent conspiracies on the right. From theories such as the idea that gangs like MS-13 are regularly using children to smuggle contraband over the border or the lie of Birtherism, there is plenty of evidence to conclusively prove these conspiracies false, yet our homegrown reactionaries don’t care. It is an issue of belief, not reason, and the dam burst at least a decade ago for reactionary America.
The political context of the fake pro Israel group is also not addressed by Romano. By tricking Roy Moore and mentally unstable ex-congressman Joe Walsh into a performance of a fake Israeli national anthem, Baron Cohen is highlighting the relationship between right-wing evangelism and right-wing Israeli political interests. With millennial Jews becoming less supportive of Israel, Zionism is becoming more dependent on right-wing evangelicals to shore up economic and political support.
While comedy is obviously subjective, the point of this joke has a political context outside of the very desired schadenfreude of pranking some reactionary oafs. By mocking people like Roy Moore, Baron Cohen is highlighting the lack of a cultural connection to Judaism among the reactionary right, whose main connection to the Jewish people seems to be the urge to bring on the end of the world by rounding us all up in Israel.
There is a critical case to be made by Romero that they don’t like Baron Cohen’s brand of comedy, and that’s beyond fine. What is frustrating is the ways Romero is actively misunderstanding the motivations of the right, engaging in civility politics as a way to make the aesthetic point against Baron Cohen’s comedy. By projecting that these acts of media manipulation are a “new low for liberals”, Romero is taking agency away from the right and mistakes their true motivations.