Performative Politics and the Redundancy of Borat

If this keeps up, comedic genius Sacha Baron Cohen may have to concoct a circumspect alter ego who keeps his clothes on to act as a foil to the political status quo.

Photo/Borat Twitter

Lisa Van Dusen/For the Hill Times

October 29, 2020

The buffoonish hamming, the slapstick vulgarity, the imbecilic racism, the bunko set pieces, the cartoonish misogyny, the elaborate dupery, the unseemly honeytraps … with such outrageous antics happening in the most powerful office in the world, politics, as has been noted, can be hard to mock these days.

Sacha Baron Cohen, the British actor and satirist who concocted and unleashed Borat on an unsuspecting world, has more in common with Donald Trump than his Christ’s College Cambridge history degree and undergrad dissertation on the American Civil Rights movement might lead one to believe.

As an actor, Baron Cohen, like Trump, is utterly unself-conscious in his willingness to make a complete ass of himself publicly if a performance demands it. His signature role—unlike dramatic turns in vehicles such as The Spy on Netflix and his portrayal of Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s The Chicago Seven on Prime—also hinges on the premise that it’s much easier to con people playing an imbecile than playing a genius.

It’s a reversal of long-held assumptions about the more exploitable, insidious aspects of deference to authority that, in the age of fictionalized politics, is both toxic political Kool Aid and weirdly re-valued comedy gold. In the 14 years since the first Borat movie brought the rampaging, fake-Kazakh television correspondent to screens, the reality show-colonized sideshow of great power politics has made him less absurd, generally, for being processed through a collective suspension of disbelief recalibrated by a steady diet of industrialized bullsh*t and less absurd, specifically, for our collective adoption of Trump as the international standard for boorishness. We now live in a world where Borat reminds us not of no other human alive or dead, but of the president of the United States, only more enterprising and less racist.

Indeed, not unlike the rest of us, Borat’s just putting in time until he can either return to his rightful place in a fully reinstated authentic reality or start consuming blinding quantities of fermented donkey’s milk.

The new Borat movie, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, never addresses this awkwardness directly but also doesn’t flinch from it, embracing instead the artistic conceit that it’s not Borat’s fault that the nominal leader of the free world has made performative lunacy less “funny-ha-ha” than it used to be. Indeed, not unlike the rest of us, he’s just putting in time until he can either return to his rightful place in a fully reinstated authentic reality or start consuming blinding quantities of fermented donkey’s milk.

(The fact that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm—with its newsmaking scene of virtuoso self-parodist Rudy Giuliani being pranked in a hotel room by Borat’s daughter as a television journalist—premiered on Prime three days after CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin was suspended for “exercising his Constitutional right to self-determination” on a Zoom call in which his fellow New Yorker writers were role-playing the presidential election says a lot about what an uphill climb reinstating that saner, authentic reality may be.)

As we watch Borat buy a cage for his daughter to live in, chain a cannonball to her ankle, plot to sell her to a powerful American politician, and crash the annual CPAC convention in Washington in a Trump costume, we can’t help but compare all of it to what has passed for reality lately and conclude that not only is Baron Cohen less insulting to our intelligence than Trump, his clown is more plausible as a character.

Indeed, in one of those serendipitous strokes of timing, my final, pre-filing Borat search just delivered Baron Cohen responding to Trump’s tetchy review of his new film. “Donald—I appreciate the free publicity for Borat! I admit, I don’t find you funny either,” Cohen tweeted. “I’m always looking for people to play racist buffoons, and you’ll need a job after Jan. 20. Let’s talk!”

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.