I admit I came late to the Borat 2 party. The film has been available on Amazon Prime Video since Friday, which may as well be five months ago in the realm of streaming discourse. Nevertheless, I sat down Monday evening to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan expecting nothing would surprise me. I knew about, and had watched, the clip of Rudy Giuliani disgracing himself, and heard about Maria Bakalova surprising audiences as Borat’s daughter. I even knew Borat went to CPAC to bedevil Vice President Mike Pence.
Perhaps suspecting I’d heard all the “good bits” explains why I was so taken aback at the film’s interruption of the Conservative Political Action Conference. And no, it has nothing to do with what Sacha Baron Cohen did. To be sure, the subversive comedian goes all out with his shtick there, first arriving dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, earning himself annoyed glances but seemingly nothing more (the film was of course selectively edited). Then he dresses up as President Donald Trump, complete with a fat suit and Halloween mask, and interrupts Pence’s address to the conservative faithful from last February.
All of this was par for the course. What surprised, however, is what happened before Borat burst onto the scene shouting, “Michael Pence, I brought a girl for you!” And it wasn’t comical.
Standing in front of his enraptured audience, the Vice President of the United States crowed about the White House’s current handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“As of today, we have 15 cases of coronavirus that have been detected in the United States with only one new case detected in the last two weeks,” Pence bragged. “And while the risk to the American public remains low, as the president said yesterday, ‘We’re ready. We’re ready for anything.’”
My mouth dropped open in abject shock.
This bit of braggadocio is obviously in the public record. The remarks were duly written down in February, alongside many others from White House officials and leaders that month, including Trump calling the coronavirus the Democratic Party’s “new hoax” the same weekend as CPAC. In Iowa, the president even similarly smirked, “So far we have lost nobody to coronavirus in the United States. Nobody.”
As of the time of writing, more than 226,000 Americans have died from complications caused by COVID-19, with some scientists projecting that number could reach 300,000 deaths by the end of the year. So it’s more than fair to wonder now if they really were “ready for anything.”
These speeches, and Borat’s filming, were again made the weekend of Feb. 28. We now know that by this point, Trump was aware of exactly how dangerous the virus was. In his book Rage, journalist Bob Woodward uncovered that Trump was told by his national security adviser on Jan. 28 that the coronavirus would be “the greatest national security threat” of his presidency. He was also made aware that the virus could be passed by asymptomatic carriers. The president then told Woodward on Feb. 7, “This is deadly stuff. You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed… It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Yet there he and his vice president were a month later—a crucial month in preparing for the pandemic that was already reaching U.S. shores—shrugging off the danger before large crowds. Trump compared the virus to the threat of the flu, suggesting COVID appeared to be less deadly, while Pence told CPAC, “We’re ready.”
The irony of hearing those words again in late October 2020 is so thick that it blocks even the grimmest gallows chuckle. This administration, which placed Pence in charge of its coronavirus task force on Feb. 26, was actively downplaying the danger of COVID, even as they were being advised by national security agencies of its sheer deadliness. Looking back now, soundbites like this are an encapsulation of staggering arrogance and ineptitude, which has led to COVID-19 becoming the third largest cause of death in the United States.
We of course knew this all before, but the relentless grind of the news cycle has a way of making obvious facts seem obscured or distant. Borat 2 letting millions of viewers see and hear that compensating bravado with fresh eyes eight months later, and one week before the election, is horrifying. It also provides clarity about the people asking for another four years to keep up the good work.