Sacha Baron Cohen and the Right’s Imaginary Israeli

The British comedian returns to form with his new show, Who is America?

Noah Kulwin
July 16, 2018
Photo: Showtime

AFTER A TRILOGY of misfires—2009’s Brüno, 2012’s The Dictator, and 2016’s Grimsby—Sacha Baron Cohen has finally returned to form with the Showtime series Who is America?

In the premiere of Who is America?, the British comedian returns to characters and methods more similar to his earlier creations, Borat and Ali G. This time around, Cohen cycles through four characters: an Alex Jones like-charlatan on a Hornet scooter, an effete, Hillary-loving liberal clad in a ponytail and an NPR t-shirt, a British ex-con who makes paintings from his feces and semen, and, most effective of all, an Israeli fixated on putting more guns in the hands of American children.

The Jones character and the ex-con are capable of holding attention on their own and successful in drawing out their subjects: Bernie Sanders and a Laguna Beach art gallerist, respectively. Cohen’s second character—the ponytail liberal who introduces himself by apologizing for his white privilege—falls flat, parodying what reads like a Bush-era liberal, a shtick that’s at least a decade past its prime.

But Cohen’s final act, the gun rights-obsessed Israeli Erran Morad, is sublime. A pitch-perfect imagining of what Republican America believes Israelis to be, Morad meets with various right-wing loonies to pitch his program for preventing school shootings by arming toddlers and elementary school children. Nevermind that Israel’s own gun control laws are notoriously restrictive, or why an Israeli would care so much about American gun violence (instead of the usual fantasies about Muslim violence), or whether preschool children should be allowed in the same room as a gun (!).

The success of Cohen’s stunt is evidenced by the steady drip of Tea Party nimrods over the past week copping to falling for Cohen’s shtick. One, the cable news pest Philip Van Cleave, goes so far as to appear in an instructional sing-along video with Cohen/Morad, hawking all sorts of weapons (including a rocket-propelled grenade) decorated with fuzzy toys and bright colors, like the banned cigarette ads of a previous generation. The others ensnared in Cohen’s trap—including Republican Reps. Dana Rohrbacher and Joe Wilson, former Senate Majority Leader turned lobbyist Trent Lott, and Tea Party loudmouth Joe Walsh—merely taped their own enthusiastic testimonials in support of the initiative.

Plumbing the depths of American gun extremism is tricky, given that in this country, dozens of schoolchildren and hundreds of concertgoers can be gunned down and forgotten within a matter of months. But Who is America? succeeds wildly here, because it examines just how much more craven gun rights advocates can actually get, instead of gawking at what they say on CNN.

But deeper than the subject of guns (on the next episode, Morad sits down with Dick Cheney to talk about waterboarding, among other things) is the American right’s Israel fetish. Clad in a military-style t-shirt and facing the camera sitting down, with legs apart at a 270-degree angle and a jawline that could slice a watermelon, Moran demonstrates how pretty much anyone with a solid accent can assume the identity of an Israeli in the mind of an American ultraconservative; all it takes is adopting a masculine pose and some severe, guttural R’s. The right-wing id does the rest.

This only makes what comes next more tantalizing. Sarah Palin, the icon of proto-Trump conservative idiocy, has already issued a statement condemning Cohen for tricking her with an alleged impersonation of a disabled veteran. But as anyone who’s glanced at a TV screen in the last year while cable news was on can testify, it doesn’t take much to get people like Palin to say something outrageous or stupid. The trick is to get them to say something funny.

Noah Kulwin is a writer and contributing editor at Jewish Currents. He is also co-host of the podcast Blowback, and an associate editor at The Drift. He lives in New York.