We’re in the Midst of a Culture War. Do We Actually Like Fighting It?

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The protests at UC Berkeley in 2017. As much as “the culture war” between liberals, conservatives, and everyone betwixt and between may be characterized by outrage, we should consider it’s become so pervasive because we actually relish fighting it. (Photo Credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Funcrunch Photo/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, took to his blog to explain his reasoning for why he switched his endorsement from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Though he acknowledged it wasn’t his biggest reason—positions on the estate tax, concerns about Hillary’s health, and a lack of concern about Trump being a “fascist” and belief in his talents of persuasion also were factors—part of his decision was the subjective experience of being a prospective voter in the election. In a subsection of his post titled “Party or Wake,” Adams had this to say about the Clinton-Trump audience dichotomy:

It seems to me that Trump supporters are planning for the world’s biggest party on election night whereas Clinton supporters seem to be preparing for a funeral. I want to be invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.

Silly and privileged as it might seem—I want to have a good time and not a bad time—there might be something to Adams’s sentiments as they relate to Trump’s base. In a sprawling piece for Politico, senior staff writer Michael Grunwald delves into how the culture war has pervaded our modern political landscape. Speaking on the mood at Trump’s rallies during the campaign, he evokes that party-like atmosphere to which Adams referred:

The thing I remember most about Trump’s rallies in 2016, especially the auto-da-fé moments in which he would call out various liars and losers who didn’t look like the faces in his crowds, was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The drill-baby-drill candidate would drill the Mexicans, drill the Chinese, drill the gun-grabbers, drill all the boring Washington politicians who had made America not-great. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. It was a showman putting on a show, a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.

“How much fun everyone seemed to be having.” From my liberal suburban bubble, it seems strange to imagine an environment that feels akin to a circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno as fun.

And yet, there’s the feeling of inclusion (without really being included) that his fans apparently relish. As much as one might tend to feel that Trump gets more credit than he deserves, he has tapped into a genuine spirit of Americans feeling ignored or replaced and desiring to be part of a celebration. We don’t want change. We don’t want a level playing field for everyone. We want America to be great again. We want to keep winning. Never mind that we don’t exactly know what winning means or if we’ll still be winning five, ten, or twenty years down the road.

There’s much more to dwell upon than just the tenor of Trump’s rallies, though. Which, despite having won the election back in 2016, he’s still regularly holding. Is he already running for 2020? Or is he doing this because winning the election is his biggest achievement to date? Does anyone else think this is weird and/or a waste of time and other resources? Or is this Trump being Trump and we’re already past trying to explain why he does what he does? But, I digress.

Before we even get to present-day jaunts with the “LOCK HER UP!” crowd, there’s a historical perspective by which to assess the tao of Trump. Grunwald starts his piece with a trip back to a John McCain campaign rally in 2008. In a departure from his more measured political style, McCain railed against a Congress on recess and high gas prices by issuing a call to arms on drilling for oil, including in offshore locations. McCain sensed the direction in which his party was headed, a moment which presaged the rise of Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin, unabashed in demanding more energy no matter how we get it.

As Grunwald tells it, the audience ate this rhetoric up “because their political enemies hated it.” Damn the consequences as long as we “own the libs.” Ten years later, McCain is gone, Trump’s in the White House, and every political confrontation is a new iteration of a perpetual culture war. Instead of motivating his supporters to vote and institute policy reform, Donald Trump is “weaponizing” policy stances to mobilize them.

Accordingly, even issues which should be above partisanship like climate change and infrastructure are framed as part of an us-versus-them dynamic. Granted, Trump may not have created the tear in the electorate that allows him to exploit mutual resentment on both sides of the political aisle. That said, he has seen the hole and has driven a gas-guzzling truck right through it. Meanwhile, foreign adversaries are keen to capitalize on the disarray and disunion. Russian bots and trolls meddle in our elections and spread fake news online, and don’t need all that much convincing for us to help them do it.

The threat to America’s political health, already somewhat suspect, is obvious. It’s difficult if not impossible to have substantive discussions on policy matters when so much emphasis is on the short term and on reactionary positions. Expressing one’s political identity has become as important as putting forth a meaningful point of view. And Trump, Trump, Trump—everything is a referendum on him and his administration, even when there’s no direct causal relationship. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What’s particularly dangerous about this political climate is that it obscures the reality of the underlying issues. Along the lines of expressing our political identities, emotions (chiefly outrage) are becoming a more valuable currency than facts. As much as we might dislike the perils of climate change or even acknowledging it exists, it’s happening. Our infrastructure is crumbling. The topic shouldn’t be treated as a zero-sum game between urban and rural districts. But tell that to the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C.

President Trump, while, again, not the originator of divisive politics, is well-suited for capitalizing on this zeitgeist. As Grunwald describes it, he understands “how to use the levers of government to reward his allies and punish his enemies.” This means going after Democratic constituencies and giving bailouts/breaks to Republican-friendly blocs. With GOP leadership in Congress largely in step with his policy aims, too (this likely gives Trump more due than he deserves because it implies he actually makes carefully crafted policy goals), ideologically-based attacks on certain institutions are all the more probable.

What’s the next great hurrah for Republicans, in this respect? From what Mr. Grunwald has observed, it may well be a “war on college.” I’m sure you’ve heard all the chatter in conservative circles about colleges and universities becoming bastions of “liberal indoctrination.” Free public tuition is something to be feared and loathed, a concession to spoiled young people. And don’t get us started about a liberal arts degree. It’s bad enough it has “liberal” in the name!

As the saying goes, though, it takes two to tango. In this context, there’s the idea that people on the left share the same sense of disdain for their detractors on the right. How many liberals, while decrying giving Republicans any ammunition in Hillary calling Trump supporters “deplorables,” secretly agreed with her conception of these irredeemable sorts? There are shirts available online that depict states that went “blue” in 2016 as the United States of America and states that went “red” as belonging to the mythical land of Dumbf**kistan. For every individual on the right who imagines a snowflake on the left turning his or her nose up at the “uncultured swine” on the other side, there is someone on the left who imagines and resents their deplorable counterpart. Presumably from the comfort of his or her electric scooter.

This bring us full-circle back to our experience of waging the cultural war first alluded to in our discussion of the party vibe at Donald Trump’s rallies, and how people could be having a good time at a forum where hate and xenophobia are common parlance and violence isn’t just a possibility, but encouraged if it’s against the “wrong” type of people. The implications of a culture war fought eagerly by both sides are unsettling ones. Close to the end of his piece, Grunwald has this to say about our ongoing conflict:

This is presumably how entire countries turn into Dumbf**kistan. The solutions to our political forever war are pretty obvious: Americans need to rebuild mutual trust and respect. We need to try to keep open minds, to seek information rather than partisan ammunition. We need to agree on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative sources. But those words looked ridiculous the moment I typed them. Americans are not on the verge of doing any of those things. Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back. And we should at least consider the possibility that we’re fighting this forever war because we like it.

“Because we like it.” It sounds almost as strange as “how much fun everyone seemed to be having” with respect to Trump’s pre-election events, but it rings true. Sure, some of us may yet yearn for civility and feelings of bipartisan togetherness, but how many of us are content to stay in our bubbles and pop out occasionally only to toss invectives and the occasional Molotov cocktail across the aisle? I’m reminded of actor Michael Shannon’s comments following the realization that Donald Trump would, despite his (Trump’s) best efforts, be President of the United States. Shannon suggested, among other things, that Trump voters form a new country called “the United States of Moronic F**king Assholes” and that the older people who voted for him “need to realize they’ve had a nice life, and it’s time for them to move on.” As in shuffle off this mortal coil. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s my second Shakespeare reference so far in this piece.

I’m reasonably sure Shannon doesn’t actually mean what he said. Though who knows—maybe his creepy stares really do betray some homicidal tendencies. I myself don’t want Trump voters to die—at least not before they’ve lived long, fruitful lives. But in the wake of the gut punch that was Trump’s electoral victory, did I derive a sense of satisfaction from Shannon’s words? Admittedly, yes. I feel like, even if temporarily, we all have the urge to be a combatant in the culture war, assuming we invest enough in politics to have a baseline opinion. Because deep down, we like the fight.


Wars among ideologues can be messy affairs because each side holds to its dogmas even in the face of factual evidence to the contrary and in spite of signs that portend poorly for their side. Regarding the culture war, there’s nothing to suggest a cessation of hostilities in the near future. To quote Michael Grunwald once more, “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back.” Rebuilding mutual trust and respect. Keeping open minds. Agreeing on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative facts. Indeed, we are not on the verge of doing any of that. Having a man like Donald Trump in the White House who not only fans the flames of the culture war but pours gasoline on them sure doesn’t help either.

What’s striking to me is the seeming notion held by members of each side about their counterparts across the way that they actively wish for life in the United States to get worse. While I may surmise that many conservatives are misguided in how they believe we should make progress as a nation (i.e. “they know not what they do”), I don’t believe they are choosing bad courses of action simply because they want to win over the short term. Bear in mind I am speaking chiefly of rank-and-file people on the right. When it comes to politicians, I am willing to believe some will make any choice as long as it keeps them in office and/or personally enriches them.

But yes, I’ve experienced my fair share of attacks online because of my stated identity as a leftist. Even when not trying to deliberately feed the trolls, they have a way of finding you. One commenter on Twitter told me that, because I am a “liberal,” I am useless, not a man, that I have no honor and no one respects me nor do I have a soul, and that I hate the military, cheer when cops are shot, and burn the flag—all while wearing my pussyhat.

Never mind the concerns about soullessness or my inherent lack of masculinity. Does this person actually think I want our troops or uniformed police to die and that I go around torching every representation of Old Glory I can find? In today’s black-and-white spirit of discourse, because I criticize our country’s policy of endless war, or demand accountability for police who break protocol when arresting or shooting someone suspected of a crime, or believe in the right of people to protest during the playing of the National Anthem, I evidently hate the military, hate the police, and hate the American flag. I wouldn’t assume because you are a Trump supporter that you necessarily hate immigrants or the environment or Islam. I mean, if the shoe fits, then all bets are off, but let’s not write each other off at the jump.

With Election Day behind us and most races thus decided, in the immediate aftermath, our feelings of conviviality (or lack thereof) are liable to be that much worse. The open wounds salted by mudslinging politicians are yet fresh and stinging. As much as we might not anticipate healing anytime soon, though, if nothing else, we should contemplate whether being on the winning or losing side is enough. What does it to mean to us, our families, our friends, our co-workers, etc. if the Democrats or Republicans emerge victorious? Do our lives stand to improve? Does the income and wealth inequality here and elsewhere go away? Does this mean the political process doesn’t need to be reformed?

As important as who, what, or even if we fight, the why and what next are critical considerations for a fractured electorate. For all the squabbling we do amongst ourselves, perhaps even within groups rather than between, there are other battles against inadequate representation by elected officials and to eliminate the influence of moneyed interests in our politics that appear more worth the waging.

The Complicated Legacy of John McCain

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As a naval officer, John McCain survived years of unimaginable physical and psychological abuse. That doesn’t absolve him of poor decisions as a lawmaker and presidential candidate, though. (Photo Credit: Diane Bondareff/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Since Senator John McCain passed away after a protracted battle with brain cancer, the tributes have been pouring in from members of the media and political figures on both the left and right. He’s being hailed as a war hero, a maverick, a politician who put country first, and someone who brought dignity to his position as a legislator. He’s also being lauded for changing the way presidential campaigns are run, in that he provided journalists with more access than was the standard at the time.

Hop on Twitter and start digging, however, and you’ll find no shortage of comments from his detractors who, if not downright gleeful about McCain’s death, are devoted to dispelling the myth the media has created about the senator from Arizona. As author Dan Arel tweeted, “He was a monster who killed civilians in Vietnam, voted to kill civilians as a senator, tried to block Martin Luther King Day, sang about bombing Iran…I can keep going. He was a horrible human being and we should be celebrating his death.” But please, Mr. Arel—tell us how you really feel.

In no uncertain terms, therefore, John McCain was a divisive figure in U.S. politics, and since the mainstream media already has the extolling of his supposed virtues covered, let’s get another viewpoint from the vocal minority who has little, if any, praise to spare.

Paul Blest, news editor for Splinter News, wrote a piece shortly after McCain’s passing detailing “the myth of John McCain.” As Blest explains, the media helped McCain craft his image as a “maverick” and “honorable statesman” because, aside from his status as a war hero, he was “always willing to give the media access, the thing it craves above all.”

As such, the press lionized him for doing, as Blest characterizes it, the “bare-ass minimum.” One instance highlighted within is when, during a 2008 town hall, one of McCain’s supporters professed that she was worried Barack Obama might become president because he is “an Arab,” to which McCain replied by taking the microphone, shaking his head, and saying that he’s not an Arab but a “decent family man.”

Members of the media point to this example as emblematic of his extraordinary character, viewing the decade-old clip through rose-colored glasses. Blest and others have pointed out, meanwhile, that a truly meritorious response would’ve been to point out that even if Obama were an Arab, this would not be reason to fear or loathe him, i.e. being an Arab and a decent family man aren’t diametrically opposed.

Another instance of the press celebrating John McCain occurred when he cast his vote against the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. In keeping his proverbial cards close to the vest until the last minute, McCain brought a wealth of media attention his way, and prior to entering the Senate chamber, reportedly told reporters to “watch the show.” McCain’s tone here belies the seriousness of the vote about to be cast. Over 20 million Americans were projected to have their health care plans disrupted by a repeal of the ACA. That’s not something to equate with popcorn entertainment.

Thus, while McCain’s willingness to stand apart from his fellow Republican lawmakers when it suited him (see also his opposition to confirming Gina Haspel as CIA director) shouldn’t go unmentioned, as Blest argues, that cases like these were few and far between should give us pause and force us to reconsider his legacy.

One area that really sets John McCain apart—and not in a good way, mind you—is his history as an unrepentant hawk. McCain’s was a leading voice in pushing for intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, even past the point when people were considering it a failure and waste of resources, human or otherwise. He also advocated for war with Iran, and celebrated President Donald Trump’s reversal on the Iran nuclear deal. To many, McCain is, simply put, a warmonger, and the decision to name the bill authorizing an exorbitant defense budget for 2019 after him is therefore apropos.

In addition to his beating the drums of armed conflict, and for all his ballyhooed departures from Trump—which the president has treated with his characteristic pettiness in affronts to him beyond the grave—McCain still voted in league with Trump some five-sixths of the time. This included supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch and the ability of a Republican-led Congress to block Obama’s pick, as well as voting for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a bill that primarily favored the super-wealthy.

And then there’s John McCain as presidential candidate. His correcting the record on Barack Obama aside, he still agreed to name Sarah Palin, someone clearly not suited to be next in line to run the country (or perhaps any public office of relative import), his running mate in 2008. Arguably, Palin’s rise in prominence gave way to the ascendancy of Donald Trump, for both have been elevated to national political stature owing to rhetoric steeped in factual inadequacy and prejudicial attitudes.

Plus, there’s his whole unapologetic commitment to use of the term “gook,” a racial slur directed at Asians. Even if he meant it primarily for his North Vietnamese captors, it’s still an epithet that Asians and non-Asians alike find offensive. Context notwithstanding, words matter, even (read: especially so) in the era of Trump.

In light of all of the above, and despite tribute after tribute in newspapers and on cable news, Blest suggests McCain’s place in American political history shouldn’t be so highly esteemed. He writes:

McCain’s political legacy should be largely that of someone who frequently and loudly toyed with doing the right thing and yet decided to do the other thing almost every single time, and who was a willing and active participant in the destruction of one country and helping the racist, authoritarian right rise in his own. What John McCain’s legacy will be, however, is the one crafted by the reporters and peers who loved him, who bought hook, line, and sinker that McCain was a different kind of politician, and not the fraud he actually was.

This is blunt talk coming from Blest, and in the immediate aftermath of McCain’s death, his words may come across to some as disrespectful, notably given McCain’s bipartisan acclaim. Just the same, though, Blest’s dissent appears more firmly rooted in patriotic concerns than Pres. Trump’s personal grudge, and at any rate, is authentic to how many Americans feel, particularly those of a progressive bent. These feelings, of course, may be magnified given the day’s tense political climate. But it doesn’t make them any less valid.


It’s admittedly difficult to approach John McCain’s memory with anything but reverence if we focus only on how much the man suffered while imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Certainly, if one recalls the late David Foster Wallace’s extensive profile for Rolling Stone of McCain while on the campaign trail circa 2000, his recounting of the physical abuse the man endured as a naval officer tells of a man committed to his principles and exhibiting a resolve few could hope to match. From Wallace’s piece:

In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb.

His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.

He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.

He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused. The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.

The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest.

It’s episodes like this that John McCain’s backers can easily point to as evidence as a man of a certain character. I don’t know about you, but I don’t suspect I would fare particularly well under these circumstances. I mean, I’m the kind of person who freaks out when I can’t log into Pokémon Go because the server is down momentarily. By this token, four-plus years of physical and psychological torture seems like an impossibility.

And yet, it’s precisely because of what McCain saw and survived during wartime that makes his less savory political stances all the more frustrating. For him to witness or even be party to the atrocities of armed conflict and to turn around and to embrace a foreign policy that prizes indiscriminate bombing of foreign lands and wanton regime change is hard to process. It’s incongruous with the image of the younger man holding strong in a strange land against a hostile enemy, and surely flies in the face of the glowing portrait the mainstream press appears keen to paint.

John McCain’s hagiographic appeal in an era in which Donald Trump and current Republican leadership evidently seek to drag the party down to its darkest depths is such that even the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have paid him tribute, much to the chagrin of their supporters.

It’s disappointing and frustrating, especially since it’s hard to know whether these champions of progressive ideals legitimately believe his “legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service,” as Ocasio-Cortez phrased it, or if they feel compelled to do so for fear of reprisal—and for that matter, which of these is worse. Maybe it’s just that they respect our Armed Forces like most Americans do, even in the face of the military’s ugliest acts, or that from working alongside him (in the case of Sanders and Warren), their sense of personal attachment prevents them from viewing his record more objectively.

Lapses like these are why, in the pursuit of a more progressive vision for the United States of America, it is often more rewarding to be invested in individual issues rather than individual candidates. In this regard, the postmortem borderline deification of Sen. McCain is already excessive, much in the way, for instance, liberals’ elevation of Barack Obama obscures his less commendable devotion to centrism and capitulation to Wall Street and other moneyed interests.

Suffice it to say, then, that not everyone was thrilled with the political career of John McCain, and as far as his legacy is concerned, it should be mixed. Alas, the whitewashing of that legacy appears already underway, a subset of the larger tendency to view long-tenured lawmakers like McCain as sacrosanct, the kinds of leaders we want to see rather than the complicated, flawed humans they are.

Is Sacha Baron Cohen’s New Show Bad for America?

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Is Saron Baron Cohen’s new show bad for America? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe he’s just a comedian playing tricks on people for entertainment value, and we should just leave it at that. (Photo Credit: Joella Marino/Flickr)

He’s baaaaa-aaack!

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show Who Is Americapremiered this past Sunday on Showtime, the first episode in a seven-episode series that sees Baron Cohen return to the world of donning disguises and accents, and continuing to dupe people of influence into interviews and supporting positions publicly that undermine their credibility.

Ahead of its release, few details were released about who or what would appear on the show, save for Dick Cheney signing a “waterboarding kit” (which amounted to little more than a jug of water) in the promotional materials. Also, Sarah Palin copped to being played by Baron Cohen, although not without calling him “evil and sick” for tricking her, and Roy Moore threatening to sue Showtime over his chicanery. Clearly, the man has already struck a nerve.

At this writing, reviews are yet sparse, with only a handful having been aggregated by the likes of Metacritic. Having seen the premiere, I can say that Republicans are not the only targets of his comedy, although whether these figures are the jokes or whether Baron Cohen’s send-ups of American culture are tends to vary more as we move more leftward across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders appears in a segment with Baron Cohen’s character Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist, engaging in an absurd conversation where “Ruddick” engages in some warped math involving the 1% and 99% before Sanders confesses he has no idea what Ruddick is talking about.

As Rick Sherman, meanwhile, an ex-con who paints portraits with bodily fluids, Baron Cohen also meets with Christy Cones, a fine art consultant for Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach, who praises the bravery behind “Sherman’s” story and work. Since finding about the ruse, Cones has evidently expressed a desire to meet face-to-face with Baron Cohen as “compensation for his underhanded tactics,” criticizing him for “pretending to be someone who suffered when he probably hasn’t suffered a moment in his life.” To what extent Cones may have “suffered” in her own life, who knows, but for someone who seemed a willing participant in the throes of the filming, certainly, she is not taking it all in stride after the fact.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s “art”—some might say I am being generous in calling it that—relies on deception and making people feel uncomfortable, both on screen and off it. It’s not a style for everyone, particularly those who feel victimized by their encounters with him and his portfolio of personas. In terms of perceptions of its quality, as noted, reviews are still being written or are in the waiting, but from my estimation, while entertaining, some segments play better than others. Baron Cohen, in his sit-down with June Page Thompson, a Trump delegate from South Carolina, and her husband and fellow Trump voter, Mark Thompson, as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a liberal Democrat who apologizes for his identity as a white cisgender male, tells accounts of raising his children that are obvious caricatures of liberalism taken to an extreme. The Thompsons don’t bite, though, or not to the extent that they angrily ask him to leave. It’s as if Baron Cohen is slow-playing them for a reaction he never gets, and the final product seems flat as a result.

The payoff proves larger for a segment in which Baron Cohen, as Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, convinces numerous gun rights advocates/Republican lawmakers to lend their support to an initiative that would arm children with guns as a means of curbing gun violence in schools. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida does not take the bait, but others, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, and former U.S. senator Trent Lott, appeared only too happy to endorse the measure. It’s both funny and terrifying, and the most redeeming value is that these men consented to appearing as they did and reading from prepared materials. That is, they can’t claim this is “fake news” because the tape doesn’t lie.

Whether or not the show is subjectively “good” or “bad” as a comedic creation does not approach, however, the subject of whether or not Who Is America? is a show that real-world America needs in the current political climate. This topic is at the heart of a recent piece by Aja Romano, Internet culture reporter for Vox, who believes Baron Cohen’s “prankster provocations are a bad match for our current cultural climate.” Declaring them “exhausting” and “dangerous,” Romano attempts to quickly poke a hole in the liberal balloon of giddiness in delighting over the trickery and debasement of conservative figureheads:

On the one hand, all this may seem like the beginning of a glorious sublime parade of politicians owning themselves. But on the other hand, these politicians were tricked into appearing on the record as themselves, in a way that further perpetuates and entrenches not only the cultural ideological divide, but the idea among conservatives that “liberal” media, including entertainment media like Baron Cohen’s production, is a constant and perpetual trap to be distrusted at all costs.

Not only that, but the mileage Team Reality will get out of Baron Cohen’s performance-art antics won’t be nearly as potent as the validation Team Fake News will get out of claiming that Who Is America? represents a new low for liberals. And that’s because Team Reality was losing its hold over a single dominant reality paradigm long before Baron Cohen cycled back onto the scene.

As Romano would have it, it’s not so much that Sarah Palin et al. allowed themselves to be deceived, but that someone like Baron Cohen, who may or may not have an ax to grind, is doing the deceiving and providing cannon fodder for conservatives in the ongoing “culture war” coloring much of political interaction today. In other words, the right does not need any more material, not when they are especially good at creating it—out of thin air, if need be.

The problem, as Romano tells it, is that Baron Cohen is an “old comedy dog with old comedy tricks.” Back in 2006, when the Borat movie was first released, his comedy was still fresh and novel, and YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle had yet to really explode. Now, YouTube pranksters are numerous, outrage over news is Twitter’s currency, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell what is the genuine article and what is a meme designed to provoke hysteria. As such, in an era when real news seems like a parody of itself, exposing celebrities as Baron Cohen does loses its (shock) value.

Romano also cites Ted Koppel, who reportedly was also interviewed for the show. While dealing with his being duped better than others, Koppel expresses real concern about whether or not the whole exercise is productive, saying that “if there’s one thing we don’t need any more of in this particular era, it’s people posing as documentarians,” and that “to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this” may make for good comedy, but at the same time, might not be terrific for the “overall atmosphere.” When so much focus is levied on the cultural “divide” and on people adhering to their social media “bubbles,” as a seasoned journalist, Koppel knows full well what is he talking about when he refers to such an atmosphere.

In all, as Aja Romano sees it, Sacha Baron Cohen is not adding to the national dialog, “but…gleefully poking at it and watching everyone — politicians and onlookers alike — get upset.” To wit, I am not familiar with Romano or her work, though that doesn’t mean her commentary is to be dismissed. It’s not like she is the only one concerned about where Who Is America? fits into the whole modern political conversation, either.

While any number of celebrities and humorists have extolled the show’s virtues—presumably because they genuinely enjoy the show and not merely as a show of solidarity—not everyone is as keen on labeling it “essential” viewing. Indeed, Charles Bramesco of The Guardian, for one, finds much of the program’s content “inconsequential,” and Mike Hale of The New York Times prefaces his review of the first episode with the tagline “Should We Care?” When Romano speaks to a larger exhaustion at having to deal with real politics, her assessment of Baron Cohen’s comedy as exhausting might just hit the nail on the head. Certainly, not everyone affixed to the “liberal media” is so amused by his antics.

Then again, it could be that the program is but one amid a glut of comedic programming devoted to the state of political affairs in the United States. With so many competing voices, perhaps it’s natural that Baron Cohen, delivering material in a format not dissimilar from his previous efforts, loses his appeal in light of all the alternatives. In a sea of angry (or wryly amused, at least) voices, maybe he was bound to be unable to add anything to our discourse before he began.


In asking whether or not Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show is “bad” for America, it should be stressed that, while this question is phrased in terms of a yes-or-no binary, a fitting answer may be simply that it is neither bad nor good for America—it just is. Even if Who Is America? isn’t deliberately provoking outrage from detractors on the right, therefore—already, it’s evident that it is provoking outrage, so the remaining debate is whether Baron Cohen should shoulder the lion’s share of the blame or whether his victims should for allowing themselves to get so PO-ed in the first place—and assuming, as Ms. Romano insists, that the program doesn’t add to the discussion but only entertains, might this be a counterproductive creation in that it keeps us stuck in place when we should be making progress on bridging the divide? That is, if we’re not moving forward, are we essentially moving backward?

In considering the utility (or potential lack thereof) of Baron Cohen’s show, I’m reminded of the media’s attempts to grapple with The Daily Show‘s popularity in the Jon Stewart era. At its peak, about 12% of Americans cited The Daily Show as a place where they got their news, according to an online poll by Pew Research in 2015. That didn’t make it a leader in news, of course, but it put the show roughly equal to sources like USA Today and Huffington Post. Stewart, ever self-effacing, has always been quick to downplay the show’s influence, at least as much as he brought to it, and even the results of the poll suggest most respondents watched for the entertainment value during his tenure rather than for in-depth reporting, the latest headlines, or views and opinions.

Any inherent limitations as a news source aside, Stewart’s 16-year stewardship of Comedy Central’s flagship program was admired for his being tough on public figures when the occasion arose, notably Barack Obama and Tony Blair, the latter for his insistence on military solutions to a war on terror which was becoming increasingly apparent could not be fought be purely on military terms, but also had to confront the underlying ideologies.

Accordingly, while interviews with various entertainers seemed comparatively lightweight, the show’s regular dissection of the motives of established political figures and aspiring candidates alike, as well as the agendas of authentic news media outlets, was seen as meritorious. As with Michelle Wolf’s takedown of the news media alongside the political elite in the most recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner (Wolf herself is a Daily Show alum), comedy was a tool for Stewart and his confrères to cut through the bullshit and hold the objects of their critical lenses accountable.

And while Stewart downplayed this aspect of the show, too, his measured, rational approach to confronting the issues of the day prompted favorable responses, not to mention this column in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson Sorkin entitled “Jon Stewart, We Need You in 2016.” In an era in which more traditional news sources are either losing customers (newspapers) or credibility (cable news), The Daily Show seemed less like an escape from reality and more like a bastion of sanity, capped off by its trademark closing “Your Moment of Zen.” By this token, antipathy from the FOX News wing of political belief systems was considered more of a badge of honor than a legitimate admonishment to be honored or feared, with the conservative network billing itself as “fair and balanced” guilty of more than its fair share of biased “reporting.”

Besides, it is not as if Jon Stewart hasn’t been critical of Democrats. In fact, since ending his run as host of The Daily Show, he arguably has reserved his harshest rebukes for figures outside the GOP fold, as if to express his dismay and disapproval with a party that has appeared, at times, to lack a unified message or to act in accordance with its stated values. In a notably tense exchange in a live podcast taping with David Axelrod for The Axe Files, Stewart blamed the Dems, in part, for the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump by not doing their part to make government more effective and efficient for their constituents. There was still plenty of humor to be enjoyed throughout, although perhaps not as irreverently told as when he was host of The Daily Show—and not without plenty of harsh words for “man-baby” Trump.

This is where I’m a little unsure how to regard Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest act. The backlash from the Joe Arpaios, Roy Moores and Sarah Palins of the world is to be expected, and deceiving them, one might argue, is going after some low-hanging fruit, politically speaking. Then again, when has the provocateur suggested he is interested in anything else but entertainment? If the first episode of Who Is America? is any indication, everyone is fair game, including liberals, so allegations of bias might be deemed overstated.

What’s more, this irritation at Baron Cohen’s humor seems indicative of a larger trend of conservatives reacting negatively to jokes made at their expense, either because of their inability to take a joke, their frustration with having drastically fewer comedians at their disposal in alignment with their ideologies, or both. Liberal humor panning conservatives seems rooted in poking fun at people like Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump who carry themselves so seriously and yet merit none of the respect they crave.

When the script is flipped, meanwhile, stabs at comedy feel predicated on lazy stereotypes, if not real contempt for the objects of the joke-maker’s gaze and/or resentment of the perceived snobbery of the left. Or it could be that so many people who enjoy humor with their political news tend to be younger, and by association, more liberal. Or it could be that conservatism is about preserving the status quo, and is therefore fundamentally at odds with comedy, the milieu of the underdog. Or, as comedian Dean Obeidallah would aver, it’s that conservatives want desperately to be funny, but just aren’t very good at it. While humor indeed is subjective, statistically speaking and for what it’s worth, it’s hard to come up with many examples of successful right-leaning comedians. You can fill in the blanks herein as you see fit.

Is Who Is America? a great show, or even among Sacha Baron Cohen’s best work? Probably not. Is it good for America? Maybe, maybe not, though having already outed a number of GOP lawmakers for supporting the right of kindergartners to bear arms, it feels like Baron Cohen has already done fine work. But at the end of the day, perhaps it’s not Baron Cohen’s job to provide hard-hitting commentary, much as it wasn’t incumbent upon Jon Stewart to be a clarion call amid the static of the cable news cycle and the entropy of the social media sphere. Let the funny man play dress-up and prank people, calls for civility aside. There are those in Congress, in the Supreme Court, and the White House who are specifically tasked with upholding major American institutions, and are thereby more deserving of our scorn. No kidding.