Dr. Cornel West: An Authentic Performance. And that’s a good thing.

Danielle Lee Tomson
4 min readJun 8, 2023


West in his campaign launch video with his signature hair style and suit.

Given that I study conservative media influencers, many people often ask me, “Are they for real? Do they believe in what they say, or is it a performance?”

They are performing, sincerely.

In today’s “authenticity” obsessed culture, where scammers, copies, Chat GPT, bots, and AI all test our understanding of what is real and what is fake, the most successful of internet influencers and media personalities understand that you must perform an authentic version of yourself in order to be recognizable, consistent, and relatable.

Enter Dr. Cornel West. For 55 years, West has been a consistent champion of the poor, of the marginalized, of the oppressed. His philosophy has been fairly consistent, his views taken from “the best” of America, as he says in an interview with Amy Goodman about his candidacy: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Aaron Heschel, Grace Lee Boggs, to name a few. These are folks deeply steeped in the communities they came from, served, fought for, and studied. They were spiritual agents who walked the walk of serving the poor and the oppressed.

West has also done this with an eye towards symbolic, everyman popular culture and rhetoric that would make Saul Alinsky proud (have progressives forgotten him??) — West has made appearances in mainstream pop culture outlets making him a household name.

Cornel West in The Matrix: Reloaded, source IMDB

He appears in the Matrix movies. He goes on Bill Maher. He has even been on Joe Rogan, often considered a political dark mark for Progressives because of Rogan’s embrace of the so-called “Manosphere,” conspiracy theorists, and other self-described anti-establishment types. Yet West embraces engaging with characters like Rogan who have massive male audiences — across races and demographics. West even validates Rogan’s centrality and cultural power by featuring the interview in his campaign launch video — meet people where they are at, or, as Alinsky would say, “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” West understands the importance of re-capturing the anti-establishment vote, an identity now claimed by many right-wing populist types in popular culture and YouTuber communities.

Cornel West on the Joe Rogan Show, as shown in his presidential campaign launch video

Why cosplay being “for the people,” when you can be a man who has been fighting for the people and their interests for 55 years? Literally running under “The People’s Party?”

Just being an anti-vaxxer (like Robert F Kennedy Jr) or conspiracy theorist does not constitute anti-establishment views that will be generative in policy outcomes for the majority of American people. West holds views that are anti-war, anti-police violence, anti-Wall Street, pro-universal healthcare, and pro-civil rights. He centers the poor and marginalized in an authentic way, but also with keen observance of brand.

In short, everybody knows who Dr. Cornel West is. And by the way, many don’t earn the title “Dr.” in popular culture as a non-medical doctor often — I would know — unless it’s a gimmick like Dr. Gorka (whose degree is disputed) or earned from a Harvard branded pedigree (Dr. West). You may disagree with him, but West is a consistent voice with a consistent brand.

West knows how to call out the obvious, in his character church cadence, swagger, love of jazz, and afro. What is he calling out? The two party system is not serving the interests of most Americans. As he says to Bill Maher in his launch video, “Neo-Fascists like Brother Trump? Or milquetoast neoliberals like Brother Biden? Wow, I’m so happy to be making a world shaking decision!

Most Americans would agree.

West is an ongoing character in popular culture in a way that RFK or DeSantis wish they could be. It is a status you must earn after decades and that no amount of consultants can craft for you. Yet to be a successful character means playing your role, sincerely.

In the redemption arc of the kayfabe of American politics, maybe having a Professor of Theology, churched and schooled in the spirit of Dr. MLK Jr., is just what comes up next on season 2024.



Danielle Lee Tomson

Personal Musings of a Scholar and Strategist Navigating Propaganda, Tech, and Power