This Sunday, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? will come to a close. In the Showtime series, the comedian went undercover as multiple personas in seven episodes that were half investigative journalism, half Punk’d. One character from the shows seems likely to join the ranks of Cohen’s other unforgettable alter egos, Borat and Ali G: Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad.
Most of the Who Is America? segments fall flat because the characters are too predictable and one-note. NPR Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello—a beyond liberal caricature who whines about the election being stolen from “President Hillary Clinton”—is used solely to prank conservatives, essentially giving them what they want and capturing their expressions of disbelief. Similarly, Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick is reserved almost exclusively to trick left-wing figures like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, riling them up on issues like climate change. It’s unclear why that dynamic wasn’t reversed; surely seeing how far Sanders would go when being egged on by a fervent supporter of his would be more telling, and, crucially for a comedy show, funnier than him cutting an interview short with a nutjob.
In contrast, colonel/captain/sergeant corporal (his title changes week to week) Morad is by far the best role Cohen takes on in the series. Morad is hilarious but also turns out to be the best medium for eliciting damning reactions from the show’s victims. As a masculine soldier, he provides ill-intentioned Americans with a viewpoint they feel comfortable supporting, reassuring them that yes, all Muslims are out to kill them. Willingly, Morad’s “Kill or Be Killed” training course participants reveal their true selves.
No doubt a large factor in the conservatives’ trust in Morad is his ethnicity and an obsession with Israel held for questionable and sometimes inexcusable reasons. In fact, the way Cohen coerced some Republican congressmen to sign off on meeting him was by honoring them at a fake pro-Israel dinner.
Morad’s bits expose something essential about the nature of his targets philo-Israeli attitudes: The men trusting him know absolutely nothing about what Israel is actually like. Last month, Tablet senior writer Liel Leibovitz critiqued the show by arguing Cohen had done a sloppy job with his impression. “You could tell just how fine-tuned a character Morad was by the Hebrew slogan on his sweatshirt, which was printed backwards, and by his use of the word meshugeneh,” a Yiddish term that you won’t hear from IDF troops. Liel is right—no sabra would fall for this inauthentic caricature. But maybe that’s the point.
Regardless of his intentions, Cohen has exposed what a lot of the right thinks of Israel. Where right-wing supporters may see an unrestrained war machine, in reality, the IDF has protocols that ensure shooting is a last resort, and Israel has incredibly strict gun control laws. Israel is, overall, an inclusive country, unrecognizable from Morad’s views but clearly, that is not the perception.
Every conservative showcased by Morad is drawn to his hawkish extreme. They perceive Israelis as Islamophobic, gun-crazy warmongers. He encourages them to be vigilantes, and they are happy to follow his directions. Ignoring clear red flags like Erran’s claim of surviving 14 terrorist attacks and starting three himself, participants are more than willing to endorse arming toddlers, drop trousers to “intimidate ISIS,” and dress up as young girls to lure and trap illegals. According to Morad, Israelis deal with terror attacks using “violence.”
Never breaking character, Cohen’s lines keep getting more outrageous. “One time in my nephew class, a man come in, shouts, screaming at them. The kids take out guns,” he deadpans. “Bang, bang, bang. That substitute teacher did not stand a chance.” No one bats an eye. In the premiere episode, Gun Owners of America founder Larry Pratt cackled when Morad joked “It’s not rape when it’s your wife.”
Disguised as Morad, Cohen dupes many notable politicians. There’s always selection bias in a setup like this—show producers picking the most gullible and pliable individuals and then making it seem as they’re representative of a larger group. But selection bias can’t explain the appearance of Vice President Dick Cheney. Forget your feelings on the man, Cheney was first in line to the presidency for years and wielded tremendous power. Here he is on Sunday night cable television, being made a fool by a foreign colonel he’s never heard of. Cheney, and the rest of Cohen’s targets for that matter, couldn’t have found information about Erran Morrad online, because he doesn’t exist! Would they have agreed to sit down with Morrad if he wasn’t from Israel? No way.
By embodying a role model conservatives admire and not impersonating an antagonist for them to argue with, Cohen brilliantly weaponizes their ideology against them.