How helpful of the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen to reveal that there are two or three people in America who are happy to join in a sing-along containing the line ‘Liberals, what we gonna do? Inject them with the Wuhan flu.’
Trouble is, it really only was two or three people. If Baron Cohen really was trying to expose the American right as a violent mob, his infiltration of a rally by the Washington Three Percenters, described as a Trump-supporting, pro-gun group, was a miserable failure. Baron Cohen’s wheeze was to pose as a bluegrass singer and to take to the stage and try to whip up the crowd by duping them into singing songs with lyrics that would identify them as hate-filled right-wing lunatics.
Perhaps for good reason, the footage of the event – which was filmed for Baron Cohen’s forthcoming TV series – barely shows the ‘crowd’. That’s because there wasn’t one – or not one that was worthy of the name. By straining my ears I could make out the voices of three people. At one point a fourth person walks in front of the stage, showing no reaction to the song at all. Soon afterwards, it appears the organisers had had enough of Baron Cohen and tried to remove him from the stage, but were prevented from doing so because the comedian himself had hired a team of heavies.
Sacha Baron Cohen can be funny, but his moment has passed. His fake persona is not nearly as amusing as Donald Trump’s real one. If Baron Cohen is to be judged as someone who exposes public prejudices – which is how, increasingly, he seems to want us to judge him – he falls a long way short. Even his most celebrated work – the film Borat – fails badly in this respect. He crosses America posing as a documentary-maker from Kazakhstan, duping ordinary people by persuading them to take part in what the producers described to them as a ‘documentary about the integration of foreign people into the American way of life’.
But if the aim was to expose the prejudices of ordinary Americans it is remarkable how little it succeeds in doing this. At one point a man at a rodeo makes a homophobic remark about wanting to do away with American gays, but that is it. When, also at the rodeo, Baron Cohen attempts to whip up the crowd into patriotic fervour, he elicits a cheer when he says Kazakhstan supports America’s war on terror – a hardly unreasonable cheer on the part of the spectators – but it rapidly turns into horrified looks and boos when he starts talking about destroying Iraq so that not one lizard will survive. When he sings a song called ‘Throw the Jew down the well’ in a country club, he gets a few people stamping their feet in turn to the music – but, as in his Washington stunt – only one or two join in the offending line. Most of the rest look disgusted. Elsewhere, he encounters nothing but kindness and tolerance.
I’m not sure that Baron Cohen was really trying to expose prejudice in the US when he made Borat – he was just trying to entertain. But I’m not surprised he is now trying to reinvent himself as a buster of prejudice. He must be well aware that the mob is about to descend on him – not a right-wing mob but the woke mob. Other comedians have blacked up, but none has set out to ridicule black urban culture as Baron Cohen did by inventing Ali G two decades ago: a dim-witted wannabe gangster from Staines. The joke was on white people, of course, but that doesn’t mean Ali G will escape the attention of the culture warriors. How desperate Baron Cohen must feel to prove he’s on the side of righteousness before he is cancelled.