In his new show, Who Is America, Sacha Baron Cohen has returned to the form that made him famous: playing characters who interact with real people unaware they are being punked. The London-born Cohen’s first successful avatar was Ali G, a white Englishman who adopted the language, mannerisms and clothes of black culture. The comedian peaked early with his film Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, an outrageously over-the-top view of America through the eyes of a Pamela Anderson-obsessed yokel named Borat Sagdiyev. Imagine what would happen to a foreigner who twisted the Indian national anthem the way Cohen mangled the Star Spangled Banner at an American rodeo in the 2006 mockumentary.
Among Ali G’s marks was a businessman named Donald Trump, who came off better than most people interviewed for the show. Trump saw through Cohen’s shtick right away, and made a quick getaway. One imagines Trump saying to himself as he exited, “This punk thinks he can punk the master.” Since Trump’s first play at elected office back in 2000, there has been a suspicion that he was doing it all for publicity. Let’s not allow him to punk us again with his talk of becoming the president, a columnist for Salon wrote back in 2011.
Through his 2016 Presidential campaign, articles kept popping up suggesting the entire thing was a joke that had taken on a life of its own. The film-maker Michael Moore insisted that, “Donald Trump never actually wanted to be President of the United States”, and was being forced to undermine his own campaign since it had grown far more popular than he could imagine. If that was the case, he failed miserably in his effort at self-sabotage. It was as if Borat or Ali G kept raising the preposterousness level, but their interlocutors, instead of finally seeing through the act, grew ever more convinced of the character’s authenticity.
Cranking up the craziness
There has been no halt to the cranking up of Trump’s craziness since he secured the most powerful office in the world, and last week’s European sojourn was a doozy. One can imagine the man behind the persona thinking, “I’m going to insult all our nation’s friends and suck up to our adversaries. I’m going to praise leaders of countries my political base has been brought up hating. I’m going to demean agencies responsible for our national security. I’m going to insult my West European hosts and undercut their agenda right before I meet them, and then deny having done so though it is all on tape. Let’s see if my base can swallow that.” Early results suggest his supporters are sticking with him even as flabbergasted commentators scramble to find words adequate to the chaos he has caused. Is it any wonder that the opening episode of Who Is America failed to make much of an impact? How could Cohen possibly match a performance artist punking the entire world?
India has offered Trump a new avenue for his act by inviting him to preside over our next Republic Day celebration as chief guest. Should he accept, the visit might not go the way Narendra Modi hopes. To begin with, India is a democracy, and Modi might not be quite authoritarian enough for Trump. Perhaps the military display and kitschy Republic Day floats will make up for that deficiency. There remains, however, the issue of trade.
I mentioned on the day Trump won the 2016 election that the only thing his political persona has been consistent about for 40 years is the idea that other nations were taking advantage of the huge, open US market while raising unfair barriers to American products. At the end of last year, I wrote, “I continue to believe that Trump’s inner protectionist will assert himself and destabilise the global economy.” After being restrained by moderate advisors during his first year in office, the American president has unleashed the predicted trade war in 2018, and I fear it will get much worse before it gets better. India has run a substantial trade surplus with the US for years, which, in Trump’s zero-sum idea of trade, equates to India stealing American money and American jobs. I expect him to give an interview just before reaching Delhi in which he calls India a cheat and a thief. Once here, he claims his quotes were all fake news and praises Prime Minister Modi effusively. He then takes a trip to Agra, and concludes the Taj Mahal he built in Atlantic City was in every way preferable to Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum: more opulent, more beautiful, and way more fun.