Borat, Trump’s America, and the Satirist’s Dilemma(s)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s second Borat movie, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, dropped last week on Amazon and I indulged my shamefully juvenile humor side and watched it with an old buddy over Skype. My overarching takeaway: It’s not quite as funny as the first Borat (2006), mainly because it cuts uncomfortably close to the bone, but in the end it has more of a heart than the original.

Cohen himself has publicly alluded to the growing challenge of doing satire in the “fake news” era. As he explained in 2019, “[In 2006, w]hen Borat got that bar in Arizona to agree that ‘Jews control everybody’s money and never give it back,’ the joke worked because the rest of us knew that the depiction of Jews as miserly is a conspiracy theory originating in the Middle Ages.” We could laugh back then, albeit uneasily, because those people still seemed like ridiculous fringe characters. But more than a decade later, Cohen continues, the problem of misinformation and online radicalization is much greater:

Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream, fueled in part by President Trump… Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which thrives on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging…

All this hate and violence actually has something in common: It’s being facilitated by a handful of Internet companies… The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify content that keeps users engaged — stories that appeal to our baser instincts and trigger outrage and fear. That’s why fake news outperforms real news on social media; studies show lies spread faster than truth.

This troubling trend is of course old news at this point, and yet the changed context makes all the difference: In 2020, Cohen is satirizing the same bigoted bystanders and right-wing fringe groups that he did in 2006, but they don’t feel like outliers or fringe groups anymore.

America under Trump has become a caricature of itself. Trump himself is a kind of cultural cartoon—akin to Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd—only, he’s not a fictional character designed to amuse children but the leader of the free world. This makes satire difficult. David Sims made that point in The Atlantic a few days ago, arguing that the new Borat movie’s “satire about the president doesn’t land” because “Trump is a more comically outsize figure than even a living cartoon character like Borat.” Sims continues:

[Ultimately, the film] becomes less of a satire and more of a straight-up exposé. Borat, arguably, starts actually doing his job as a [supposed] journalist—shining a light on the darkest corners of society and revealing them for what they are. By this point in the film, if you’re laughing, it’s likely in slack-jawed horror. I watched the Giuliani segment with hands over my eyes… In another sequence, Borat takes shelter with a group of friendly conspiracy theorists who educate him on some of their latest ideas, such as Hillary Clinton’s love of drinking children’s blood. One memorable scene in the first Borat saw him leading a rodeo crowd to cheer the idea that George W. Bush drinks children’s blood. In the sequel, he doesn’t even have to plant the idea.

Our political discourse is so poisoned that Cohen doesn’t really seem to be exposing anything surprising. This problem has plagued many of his recent comedy efforts, including his 2018 Showtime series… [which] lacked the punch of his earlier work, merely confirming that America’s radical fringe had gotten a lot less fringe-y in the past decade. When the president is defending white nationalists and failing to denounce QAnon, Cohen doesn’t have to look hard to find people willing to say alarming things on film. He isn’t holding up a twisted mirror to society anymore; he’s just holding up a camera.

As always, you have to admire Cohen’s guts: Not only did he manage to infiltrate Vice President Pence’s speech at the CPAC conference in February and score a now-infamous interview with the President’s lawyer and former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, he also spent five days living in character at the home of some “friendly conspiracy theorists” he met outside a gun store—and barely escaped unscathed when he was recognized leading a racist singalong at a “March for Our Rights” rally.

Like much of the rest of the film, that extended undercover stint with the conspiracy theorists certainly offers some laughs, but it also felt strangely subdued as satire—in part, again, because we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing these folks in the news. Borat’s new pals, for example, take delight in exposing him to QAnon stories on the internet, but as a recent op-ed in The Washington Post indicated, “39 percent of Fox News viewers say that QAnon — an insane conspiracy theory that posits that Trump’s opponents are satanic child-molesters — is ‘somewhat good’ or ‘very good’ for the country.” In other words, that’s not fringe stuff anymore. Perhaps the most truly surprising takeaway from that part of the movie was that the conspiracy theorists seemed like relatively normal people and were friendly enough to let a complete stranger stay in their home for five days. Somehow that makes it even more unsettling.

Satirists like Cohen thus face a difficult challenge in this Trumpian America where fringe has gone mainstream: how to continue to make comedy out of what is now more uncomfortably familiar than hilariously absurd. Cohen’s film also begs the question: Beyond merely exposing these frightening facets of contemporary culture, what might be done to help remedy them? (We’ll come back to that in a second.)

However, there’s another great challenge comedians face during this strange time—what John Lithgow recently labeled “the satirist’s dilemma,” namely, that satire doesn’t really effect change. These last few years, Lithgow writes, have been “giddy days for satirists. The pompous, incompetent, duplicitous and corrupt characters who have shambled in and out of the Trump administration have provided a mother lode of material.” Politically-charged material has dominated late-night shows, and seems to have become the very raison d’être for shows hosted by, among others, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert, the latter of whom overtook Fallon several years ago for the highest ratings among late-night hosts.

Lithgow, for his part, has certainly joined in this “delicious fun” over the past four years, “writing… a pair of books of doggerel poetry skewering President Trump and his rogues’ gallery.” Those books, he admits, “provided me with the purgative thrill of venting my political spleen.” Left-leaning folks will probably relate to that sense of catharsis—or “purgative thrill”—that comedy has provided during this exhausting time, as well as the camaraderie (tribalism?) it has inspired. Back in 2017, Dave Chappelle put it this way: “I have never felt more American than when we all hate on this motherfucker together.”

But, as Lithgow also warns, “I’ve struggled with a lurking ambivalence about the whole satiric enterprise.” He summarizes the “satirist’s dilemma” thus:

Satire is necessary, and it’s a helluva a lot of fun. But it has its limitations. … For one thing, satire tends to preach to the choir. The laughter at Trump and company isn’t coming from his base. … To the extent his followers are even aware of my books, their tone of dismissive snark only angers them.

This leads to a second source of my ambivalence: Satire changes almost no one’s mind. It is cathartic, cleansing and essential. It throws a glaring spotlight on social outrages and makes them live on more vividly in collective memory. But it’s rarely transformative.

There are cases in modern authoritarian regimes when very public displays of satire have been used effectively to spur social change, as Anne Applebaum has noted. But I think Lithgow is broadly correct: Most satire is relatively impotent, and that presents a difficult challenge—and a critique—for both satirists and their audiences. If anything, much of the political comedy from the past few years seems merely to be reinforcing tribal boundaries and prejudices, which, unfortunately, could probably be said of the new Borat movie as well, though parts of the film certainly won’t sit well with woke audiences either.

If I’m honest, regular doses of tribal political comedy have indeed been “delicious fun” for me as well in the Trump era. But perhaps a little too delicious. I have also found that, as a source of both amusement and catharsis, such comedy has offered diminishing returns as the past few years have dragged on. At some point, enough disturbing political realities set in that all the jokes made at the expense of right-wingers and of Trump and his goons stopped being quite as funny. I started to question the value of just making fun of these guys all the time—it started to feel self-indulgent, a little onanistic perhaps. After all, what difference does most of it make other than to help people like me feel a little better during this grim time—and mainly about ourselves? Perhaps that’s value enough. Perhaps it’s just how we survive.

Still, it certainly doesn’t make it easier for me to interact in the real world with people I disagree with. In fact, it clearly makes it harder: If I’m thoroughly convinced that my right-wing neighbor or colleague or cousin is a fascist, a racist, and a blithering idiot—and nothing else—then it’s going to be harder for me to manage to treat them with basic human decency, to work with them, respect them, or even talk to them. Just as critically, if my neighbor or colleague or cousin thinks I believe that, he’s not going to engage with me in any healthy way. This is the destructive power of ideology: it turns complex human beings into tribal symbols.

Of course, plenty of folks would argue that there’s no room for cozying up with these theocrats and conspiracy theorists, these “fascists” and “racists.” Why should we be interacting with terrible people? How can you make nice with those who hate you (or others), who would seek to oppress you or do harm to you (or others)? As James Baldwin famously put it, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Plenty of folks would say that. But not Jesus. He offers a rather different approach: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…” Of course, that’s one of those commands that sound so impossible that they’re almost easier to ignore. How do we do that exactly? I’m certainly no expert. But I do know that it’s got to start with faith—an understanding of innate human dignity that transcends tribe, an understanding borne of spiritual hope.

Perhaps that stalwart liberal clergyman William Sloane Coffin put it best, towards the end of his life:

The bedrock of my faith … is that we are [all] loved by God. He loves us as we are, but too much to leave us that way. We are loved by God, and that’s what gives us value. We don’t achieve value. It’s not because we have value that we’re loved by God, but because we’re loved by God that we have value. Our value as human beings is not an achievement; it’s a gift. We don’t have to prove ourselves. All that is taken care of.

What that means, of course, is that God loves our enemies just as much as God loves sinners like us, and that there are no lost causes. They don’t have to earn our love: We love them because God loves them and forgives them, and because God has loved and forgiven us too, undeservedly and unreservedly, time after time. To my mind, that’s the only starting point that will do. It’s spiritual first, man.

But what does this have to do with satire in the age of Trump? Well, I mentioned earlier that I felt Cohen’s new film posed an important question to comedians—and by extension, the rest of us: Beyond merely exposing these frightening facets of our culture, what might be done to help remedy them?

Surprisingly, as Borat Subsequent Moviefilm wears on, the tone shifts. Borat’s encounters with several sympathetic characters seem to soften and enlarge his heart, first towards Jews—Borat is a virulent anti-Semite, while Cohen is an observant Jew who speaks Hebrew—and then towards his own daughter. This, ultimately, is where I would say the new Borat movie actually bests the old one: it has a heart.

In perhaps my favorite scene, the film manages to capture a beautiful example of someone countering Borat’s ugly, offensive, bigotry with forgiveness, patience, warmth, and basic decency—and although it is just a movie, it works! In the scene, a distraught and ostensibly suicidal Borat visits a synagogue dressed as a hideous anti-Semitic stereotype—a “devil-like figure with a giant nose,” a bag of money in one hand and a puppet in the other. He soon encounters two pleasant elderly members of the congregation. One, a Holocaust survivor named Judith Dim Evans, as Sims explains, “quickly sways [Borat’s] usual [Holocaust] denialism with her own passionate, personal recollections.”

“Listen, don’t be afraid of me,” Evans opens. “Please don’t eat me alive,” Borat retorts. This absurd back-and-forth continues apace for a minute or two. Here’s an excerpt:  

BORAT: Use your venom on me and finish me… I am very depressed.

EVANS: Can I give you a hug?

BORAT: Don’t kill me.

EVANS: I will not kill you. Let me give you a kiss.

BORAT: (wailing)

EVANS: You see? I give you a kiss, and you are still alive.

BORAT: For now I am, but maybe the venom take longer.

EVANS: Oh, come on. You will be okay.

BORAT: I’m hungry.

In the end, these two sweet but firm old ladies melt away Borat’s insane prejudices until all that seems to be left is Cohen himself, asking for something to eat. Here’s Sims: “Their conversation swerves into civility, and the movie cuts to them eating a meal together. Cohen apparently stopped filming to explain what was going on to the woman, who receives a dedication at the end of the movie…”

Again, I know this is just make-believe, but I think the scene offers a glimpse of a way forward. In fact, somehow loving our enemies is really the only practical way forward. It’s not just the right path—it’s the only path that works. If you accept the premise that we can’t just wipe out our enemies, then ultimately we will have to figure out how to live alongside them. We can’t just laugh at them or ignore them or treat them like dirt. We have to bring them into the fold. And you don’t bring someone into the fold by shouting at them or by belittling them or writing them all off as nothing but halfwits and bigots. That just doesn’t work. You do it by patient, fearless acts of human decency. Small talk. Breaking bread. Neighborliness. Finding good in people, even when it may not really be there. That charity builds the trust that actually makes people amenable to change. And that’s a lesson we learn from the Best.

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