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Jazz Hands

Cornel West Is the Charlatan of the Year

The independent candidate for president doesn’t care that he might spoil Biden’s reelection—because all he cares about is himself.

Cornel West at a march in New York City
Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
Cornel West at a march in New York City on September 19

We learned everything we need to know about the presidential campaign of Cornel West, the once-great intellectual, from his campaign launch video in June. Over a retro-funk soundtrack, he leans toward the camera and, in his characteristically melodramatic style, overenunciates every other word like a minister summoning the highest spirits.

“I enter into the quest for truth, I enter into the quest for justice,” West says, “and the presidency is just one vehicle to pursue that truth and justice, what I’ve been trying to do all of my life.” In other words, he sees his campaign for the most important position in the country—perhaps the world—as just one of his many extracurricular projects, the goal of which, it must be said, seems to be to satisfy his insatiable desire for attention.

Were West running for president as a Democrat, we could dismiss him as a sideshow, as he would be trounced in a matter of weeks by President Joe Biden in the party’s primaries. But West is running as an independent—having initially run as a candidate for the People’s Party and then the Green Party, before going solo in October. As such, he has the potential to seriously damage, perhaps even doom, the campaign of the sole candidate in the race who generally shares his politics and has a chance to win.

In his launch video, West gives a (very) broad sketch of his policy agenda: “I care about whether you have access to a job with a living wage, decent housing, women having control over their bodies, health care for all...” These are all laudable and necessary goals, which is exactly why they are also key planks in the Democratic agenda. Not only does Biden support these measures but has signed laws and executive orders and taken other steps to bring them closer to reality. One could certainly argue, as West does, that these moves are too compromised, but he never explains how he would do any better.

A Quinnipiac poll in November indicated that without West on the ballot, Biden edges Trump 39 to 36 percent, while independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. earns 22 percent. With West in the mix, Biden falls to 36 percent and Trump to 35 percent. An earlier poll showed that West’s presence in the race would actually give Trump a victory. David Axelrod, former senior advisor to former President Barack Obama, warns that West’s campaign is “risky business” that “could easily tip the election to Donald Trump.”

When a reporter from Time asked West if he worries about being a spoiler, he was blasé. “It’s a good question,” he said. “Is World War III better than Civil War II?” West accuses Biden of trying to start a third world war with his robust support of Ukraine and often treats the president and his fascist predecessor as two sides of the same coin. His launch video highlights a sound-bite from an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in which he cracks wise, “Neofascists like brother Trump or milquetoast neoliberals like brother Biden? Wow, I’m so happy to make a world-shaking decision.”

Surely, West is not so washed up as an intellectual not to understand the chasm between Trump and Biden—that a neofascist in the White House is immeasurably worse than a neoliberal. Why, then, would he insert himself in a presidential race knowing that it could only make the former more likely?

Only a narcissist and charlatan would do such a thing, but that’s exactly what West has been for quite some time now.

West’s fall from grace has been occurring for so long now that it’s easy to forget what a cultural force he once was. In the 1990s, the theologian and philosopher gained unlikely fame for deftly weaving continental philosophy with contemporary political analysis and references to Black literature and music, all in the advocacy of social justice. His 1993 book, Race Matters, won him acclaim from fellow academics and general readers, climbed the bestseller list, and minted him as a major public intellectual. Even a cursory look through The Cornel West Reader, a collection of his writing from 1982 to 1999, shows a dazzling mind at work, his subjects ranging from Marxism to Horace Pippin to Anton Chekhov. Accordingly, he rose from a professorship at Union Theological Seminary to one at Princeton, and then, in 1998, he landed at Harvard. (He returned to Union Theological in 2021 after a dispute with Harvard over tenure.)

There was a dark side to these glory days. As Forbes revealed in an investigation earlier this month, West is broke—living “paycheck to paycheck,” he says—despite earning $500,000 per year over the past three decades. That’s because he has often failed to pay taxes, resulting in liens totaling in the hundreds of thousands; his current IRS bill is approximately $483,000. Despite his sizable debt, he has overspent—purchasing multiple homes, including a Four Seasons condo in Boston that one of his ex-wives claims was used to see lovers. Doling out large sums of money to support extramarital affairs is a pattern of his. According to several ex-wives and former girlfriends, he impregnates and abandons women. He even lies to employers, such as when he allegedly took medical leave from Harvard and spent the semester shacking up with a mistress who would bear his child.

But most, if not all of this was occurring in private. Then, in a reverse of Saul seeing the light on the road to Damascus, something happened to West: He became outrageous, untethered to reality, and politically reckless. It all began with the election of Obama. After making campaign appearances for Obama in 2008, West was so aggrieved over the president-elect’s failure to secure him more than one pass for the inauguration that he not only ridiculed Obama’s policies as “neoliberal”—sound familiar?—but became something of a left-wing Rush Limbaugh, referring to Obama as a “Republican in Blackface” and “a black mascot for Wall Street oligarchs.”

West has a history of using race as a cudgel against rivals. In 2002, Harvard President Lawrence Summers asked West to devote more time to scholarship and less to making TV appearances and rap albums. West was livid. In a radio interview he called Summers, who is Jewish, “the Ariel Sharon of American education.” He also claimed that Summers “cussed him out.”

This is a favorite West accusation: In 2011, West told close friend, prolific plagiarist Chris Hedges, that President Obama “cussed” him out at a public event. Amazingly, no one else in attendance has ever remarked on a sitting president allegedly hurling obscenities at an Ivy League professor.

Three years later, West would publish a collection of interviews, Black Prophetic Fire. In a chapter on religion, he claimed that he spent “hours in dialogue” with Noam Chomsky on the subject of atheism during a visit to Princeton University. When I emailed Chomsky to ask for confirmation, Chomsky said, “We didn’t meet at Princeton,” adding that they’ve never talked “beyond pleasantries.”

West’s politics continued to find new lows. In 2016, he not only endorsed Jill Stein of the Green Party but campaigned on her behalf, parroting the popular and false claim that the Democratic Party primary was “rigged” against Bernie Sanders. The senator from Vermont no longer has West’s support; West has referred to him as “pathetic” for refusing to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

West no doubt sees himself as an uncompromised leftist. In an interview with Democracy Now!, he promised to shatter the “corporate duopoly,” describing the Republican Party as “tied to big business and big military” and alleging that the Democratic Party is “incapable of taking seriously the fundamental needs of poor and working people.” But it is easy to be a purist when you don’t have the courage to propose a specific policy agenda and instead declare that you are a “bluesman,” “jazzman,” and “funk master” in the tradition of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, and Stevie Wonder.

When West does speak with political precision, he is more frightening than inspirational. His cheesy homilies mask an ugly view of the world. He regularly accuses the United States of “provoking” Putin into invading Ukraine and promises to end all aid for Ukraine’s struggle for self-determination. He has also accused Israel of practicing genocide for 75 years, and can barely find the words to condemn Hamas. When several Harvard student organizations jointly released a statement claiming that Israel and the U.S. were “entirely responsible” for the terrorist violence of October 7, West only softened it to “primarily responsible.”

His alliances also betray his proclamations of “love,” “service,” and “justice.” A so-called “revolutionary Christian,” West has praised and appeared at events with the likes of Claudia De La Cruz, the presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation. As David Corn reported for Mother Jones, the PSL supports Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and defends the Chinese government against accusations of human rights abuses. Among West’s other allies are former Radio Sputnik hosts who revere Putin and compliment the Chinese Communist Party as an “inspiration.” He also received the maximum donation from Harlan Crow, the Republican megadonor who lavished Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with gifts and luxury vacations and initially defended his relationship with “brother Harlan” before returning the donation amid mounting criticism.

In his regular TV appearances and the histrionic speeches he delivers across the country, West acts like a prophet who has just wandered out of the desert to spread the gospel. But by running as an independent against Biden, he is helping to empower the very forces that his sterling books and eloquent essays denounce: racism, class exploitation, political violence, and authoritarian politics. Either he’s oblivious to this truth, or he knows exactly what he’s doing and doesn’t care about the consequences. It’s hard to say which would be more damning.