It was one of the most brilliantly subversive marketing campaigns in recent memory, and it was just the final step in a project so top-secret most of its subjects didn't even know they were part of it. Now that Sacha Baron Cohen's "Who Is America?" has been unleashed, many of those participants are pissed, to put it mildly.
In the premiere episode's most provocative segment, Baron Cohen introduced viewers to the character Erran Morad, an Isreali extremist ready to arm children as young as three-years old. What was remarkable was watching him convince gun-rights advocates and several former and sitting congressman into not only agreeing with this platform, but also supporting it in a PSA.
Appearing in the segment were current congressmen Dana Rohrabach (R-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC), along with former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, former Illinois Representative Joe Walsh and gun-rights activists Larry Pratt and Philip Van Cleave. Van Cleave went so far as to film a "children's show" about the virtues of "gunimals," which was just guns with stuffed animals over them to make them more cute and friendly.
Most of the men fooled into participating in that segment have since spoken out, decrying Cohen's subversive methods. They join several others lashing out against Baron Cohen and Showtime, including Sarah Palin, Roy Moore, Joe Arpaio, Ted Koppel, and Austin Rhodes, which is just the kind of free advertising the show probably wants. And none of those segments have even aired, so the more they complain, the more curious people will be, and the more people will tune in.
Below are the reactions, responses, retorts and regrets of those fooled by Sacha Baron Cohen for "Who Is America?"
Despite having one of the more benign presences in the premiere episode of Sacha Baron Cohen's "Who Is America?" Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) railed against the comedian in a statement** released Monday.
The congressman said that he was fooled into the interview under the pretense it was for Isreal's 70th anniversary. "In that interview, which was not with Baron Cohen, I spoke broadly of training young people at a responsible age in self-defense," Rohrabach said. "At no time did I endorse training toddlers in handling guns. Nor was the idea even presented to me directly. If it had been, I would have rejected it.
"In school shootings, the standard response is 'Run, hide, fight,' in that order. My response was perfectly consistent with that. I love good satire, but good satire must reveal some basis in truth. This was fraud, a sick fraud at that, and its intention was to deceive the American people for political purposes."
Rohrabach's current Democratic opponent quickly leaped upon the clip, using it in his battle against the Republican incumbent.
His willingness to promote a non-existent "children's gun program" proves his commitment to the NRA over our Nation's safety.
The Jackson, Mississippi-based Clarion Ledger reached out to Trent Lott after the premiere of "Who Is America?" but the former Senate majority leader seemed irritated to even be talking about it.
"I don't even know who this guy is. Who is this guy? I don't even remember talking to him," Lott said. "They set you up. I was talking about children being trained what to do if they have an incident."
In the episode, Lott appeared in Baron Cohen's fake PSA where he said, "I support the kinder-guardians program. We, in America, would be wise to implement it, too. It's something that we should think about America, about putting guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens..good guys, whether they be teachers, or whether they actually be talented children or highly trained preschoolers"
But when asked about it afterward, Lott seemed annoyed it was even a talking point. "Here we have a Supreme Court nomination, the president meeting with Russian, but this is what we're talking about," he said. He then equated it to the media questioning him about gun control earlier in his career.
"I remember when I first went to Congress in 1973. John Stennis was assaulted and shot in the abdomen by a robber. When I got in that morning, came out of the cloakroom, the first thing the press asked was not how is Sen. Stennis doing, but what my position on gun control was now," Lott said. "We didn't know whether John Stennis was going to live or die at the time, but that was the question they had."
"Public officials of both parties, like everyone, can be the target of practical jokes -- and that's what you've seen in this instance. The request was to thank me for being a friend of Israel," explained Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) in a statement received by the Greenville News.
"I was targeted due to my strong support of Israel and my open-door office policy -- and what I told this group was that I've worked to strengthen our relationship with Israel and that I will continue to work with President Donald Trump to do so," Wilson said in his statement.
On the show, Wilson can be seen saying, "A three-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it. Our founding fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment."
His statement did not address these specific comments.
Despite being seen promoting the ludicrous idea of arming children as young as three years old to protect against school shootings, former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh took being duped by Sacha Baron Cohen pretty well.
"It's on me," he said of the words he read, adding, "Sacha fooled me good."
In the premiere episode, Walsh can be seen promoting kids with guns in a PSA filmed with other political figures. "The intensive three-week Kinderguardian course introduces specially selected children from 12 to 4 years old to pistols, rifles, semiautomatics and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars," he said into the camera. "In less than a month -- less than a month -- a first-grader can become a first grenade-er."
What can I say Bradley? @SachaBaronCohen got me. Do I believe kindergarteners should be armed? Hell no.
But, it's on me. Sacha fooled me good. Flew me out to DC for some made up friend of Israel award. I gotta live with it. https://t.co/r4juubOG9l
Walsh even spoke to CNN about the prank, calling Baron Cohen "a funny guy because he gets people to say stupid things ... because he lies to them."
According to Walsh, Baron Cohen's people told him that a four-year-old Isreali child had stopped a terrorist attack through this training program. "Well, this is kind of crazy, but it is Israel and Israel is strong on defense," he explained as his thought process at the time.
When challenged on the fact that he nevertheless did promote the idea of arming children with guns, Walsh owned it, though it seems he may have been talking about a program he was duped into believing already existed in his words above, rather than advocating for the U.S. to create a similar program.
I agree David. I gotta own what I said. But @SachaBaronCohen flew me out to DC, put me up in a hotel, all to have an Israeli TV network give me a big "Friend of Israel" award. The entire thing was a big lie.
Perhaps no one was fooled as deeply as Virginia gun-rights activist Philip Van Cleave, who went so far as to star in a pro-gun children's show aimed at preschoolers. He took to Facebook, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch" to defend what he called a "well-choreographed psychological manipulation," complete with " luxury accommodations, limousine service, and providing a generous monetary allowance to cover meals and other expenses for two days."
Van Cleave claimed he became aware that there was something "odd" going on during the segment, but nevertheless persisted with it.
"For better or for worse, I decided that I would play along with the scheme so I could find out who was behind this and where this was going," Van Cleave wrote. "I figured if I was right about this being a set up, I could blow the whistle and get a warning out to the gun-rights community across the country to protect as many people as possible and maybe derail this attack."
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like he was successful, as Showtime and Baron Cohen were able to drop this show on America with almost no forewarning.
One of the first inklings potential viewers got was when Sarah Palin, preemptively went on the offensive before the show had even premiered. Her segment has not yet aired, and yet she wanted to get way ahead of it with her outrage.
"I join a long list of American public personalities who have fallen victim to the evil, exploitive, sick 'humor' of the British 'comedian' Sacha Baron Cohen," Sarah Palin wrote in an angry Facebook post after finding out she'd been duped. Her episode has not even aired yet.
In her post, she took particular issue with what she perceived as Baron Cohen pretending to be a disabled veteran, writing, "Mock politicians and innocent public personalities all you want, if that lets you sleep at night, but HOW DARE YOU mock those who have fought and served our country."
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According to the former vice-presidential candidate, she endured " a long "interview" full of Hollywoodism's disrespect and sarcasm - but finally had enough and literally, physically removed my mic and walked out."
She challenged Cohen, CBS and Showtime to donate all proceeds from the show to "a charitable group that actually respects and supports American Vets."
In a statement, Showtime unequivocally denied her assertion that Cohen was mocking veterans, saying, "Baron Cohen did not present himself as a disabled veteran, and viewers nationwide who watched the premiere on Sunday can now attest to that. In Sunday's episode, during an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, Baron Cohen in character as Dr. Ruddick was asked by the Senator if he is disabled, and he stated that he is not and uses a mobility scooter to conserve his energy.
"In addition, Baron Cohen never presented himself as a veteran of the U.S. military to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin during the booking process or during the filming of her interview, and contrary to her claims he did not appear in a wheelchair," the statement continued. "In both the interview with Governor Palin and the interview with Senator Sanders, he did not wear military apparel of any kind."
Baron Cohen interviewed her as Ruddick and he responded in kind with a statement in character (from Ruddick's Twitter feed) where he demanded an apology and said, "I did NOT say I was a War Vet> I was in the service - not military, but United Parcel, and I only fought for my country once - when I shot a Mexican who came onto my property."
Another political figure tricked into appearing on the show who was up in arms about it was Roy Moore. The former judge from Alabama lost his election after allegations of an inappropriate encounter with an underage girl surfaced.
Moore also claims to have been offered a fake award for his support of Isreal, for which he was flown to Washington. Taking it a step further in his own pre-emptive statement, Moore has threatened suit "if Showtime airs a defamatory attack on my character!"
"As an Alabamian, I believe in truth and honesty, which the shadowy media groups behind this illicit scheme do not," he wrote in his statement, saying that Baron Cohen sought only to "mock and ridicule" Americans.
Roy Moore says he was duped by Sacha Baron Cohen for his new CBS/Showtime series & threatens legal action "If Showtime airs a defamatory attack on my character..." pic.twitter.com/ovQjdXGyjw
After initially denying that he had been duped for this show, Ted Koppel ultimately realized that a ridiculous interview he had agreed to was actually Baron Cohen in disguise. Like Rhodes, he opened up to The Hollywood Reporter** about the whole experience, which was clearly with Baron Cohen's Ruddick character.
As it did during the premiere, the character quickly devolved into discussing easily debunked conspiracy theories, this time trying to argue about the size of Trump's inaugural address crowd, leading to an argument about how eclipses work.
It was during this argument that Koppel said he realized something was off. "And that's when I said, 'Guys, I don't want to be rude; you're guests in my home. But we're done. Break down and time to leave.'"
While he never signed a release, Koppel admitted he likes a good prank as much as the next guy. "Everybody loves seeing well-known people get duped," he says. "I relish it too, when it's done well."
The former Arizona sheriff realized he'd been victimized by Baron Cohen only after Sarah Palin initially lashed out. Now running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Arizona, the candidate told The Arizona Republic, "I'm kind of disappointed I fell for their trap."
He said he should have better vetted the media request, recalling the encounter as "rather bizarre." Baron Cohen reportedly got onto off-color topics like "hand jobs" and "golden showers."
After reading about Palin's experience, and then seeing reports that Baron Cohen had duped other notable political figures, Arpaio said he started thinking, "Wait a minute, this could be the interview I had, too. I was kind of mad at myself."
Told it was an interview for an audience in Finland, Arpaio said he toughed it out, even when the questions started to "zero in on sex ... I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute. What the hell does this got to do with the interview?'"
A popular conservative radio host out of Atlanta, Georgia, Austin Rhodes wasn't upset at all that he was fooled by Baron Cohen for "Who Is America?" In fact, he wants to invite Baron Cohen back on his show.
Rhodes broke down his whole experience with the "Who Is America?" production team, and Baron Cohen himself, in a lengthy piece for The Hollywood Reporter.
"My hat is off to his crew, who kept my producer and I off-kilter the entire interview," Rhodes said of his encounter with Baron Cohen's left-wing persona Dr. Cain. "I have been a fan of Cohen's work for years, and I have seen 'Borat' probably 20 times from start to finish. How in the hell did I miss that this was Sacha Baron Cohen?"
As he was in Sunday's episode, the character of Dr. Cain was patently ridiculous, so much that Rhodes suggested he looked like Fred Armisen in disguise during their interview. He also suspected it might have been a "put on," but did not know the extent.
"I have been asked if I am concerned how I will be portrayed in what we now know to be Baron Cohen's new show, 'Who Is America?' ... I am not worried at all. My biggest regret is not being able to shake his hand as Sacha Baron Cohen or interview him (as himself). I hope we can set that up. I would say he owes me one."
Who Is America?" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.