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Evan McMullin, former #NeverTrumper candidate, on why America needs a new conservative movement

"If this is to be the nature of the Republican Party, it’s time for something else."

Third Party Presidential Candidate Evan McMullin Campaigns In Utah Days Before Election Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

The Republican Party has surrendered to Donald Trump. One could make a monograph of the quotes (here and here and here and here) from leading Republicans claiming Trump wasn’t fit for office until he became the nominee, at which point they fell in line.

So far, they have continued to placate Trump in office, regarding him as a vehicle for their agenda. There are, of course, notable exceptions like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Ben Sasse. But the vast majority of the party, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, remains anchored to Trump.

Anti-Trump Republicans have had few representative voices. During the campaign, Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and investment banker from Utah, stepped up and ran as an independent presidential candidate. McMullin’s campaign became a lodestar for conservatives who opposed Trump’s bigotry and bombast. He made a strong run to challenge Trump for Utah’s six Electoral College votes. Ultimately, Trump won Utah easily, capturing 45 percent of the vote; McMullin earned 21 percent.

Since the election, McMullin has persisted in his opposition to Trump. In December, he penned a piece for the New York Times describing Trump as an authoritarian threat to the Constitution:

In our nation, power is shared, checked and balanced precisely to thwart would-be autocrats. But as we become desensitized to the notion that Mr. Trump is the ultimate authority, we may attribute less importance to the laws, norms and principles that uphold our system of government, which protects our rights. Most dangerously, we devalue our own worth and that of our fellow Americans.

In this interview, I ask McMullin about his criticisms of Trump and the Republican Party. I ask him how his views have evolved since Trump took office a few weeks ago, and whether he thinks congressional Republicans are guilty of cowardice. Finally, I ask him if he thinks the Republican Party is salvageable after this kind of capitulation. If not, is it time for a viable third-party alternative?

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

How do you view this ongoing rift between Donald Trump and the intelligence community?

Evan McMullin

I believe it’s a pretty serious rift. Donald Trump’s relationships and policy ideas are themselves dangerous, and so people whose business it is to protect the country and to have extensive experience doing that are naturally going to have misgivings about what they see in President Trump.

Sean Illing

It’s hard to flesh out the implications of a trust gap between a sitting president and the intelligence community.

Evan McMullin

One of the implications will be that critical information won’t flow in the direction it needs to flow. So, as it’s already been reported, Donald Trump wouldn’t attend intelligence briefings on what was going on in the world. He has not received his briefings regularly — that’s extraordinary, and yet it’s already happened. Then, on the side of the intelligence organizations, they’re going to be concerned about sharing certain information with Donald Trump because of the likelihood that information would make it to Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow.

Sean Illing

It’s an indication of how far beyond the bounds we’ve gone that a statement like that can even be made. Our own intelligence community is afraid of sharing information with the president of the United States for fear that it might leak to the Russians.

Evan McMullin

I agree — it’s incredible. I would never have believed that we would see this kind of thing in our country.

President Trump speaks to members of the CIA.

Sean Illing

Trump’s first stop after being inaugurated was CIA headquarters. Presumably there to improve his relations with the intelligence community, Trump instead stood in front of a wall honoring dead CIA officers and bragged about his crowd numbers and his intelligence. What was your reaction to this?

Evan McMullin

I thought it was disgusting. I also felt sorry for him in a way. He’s a deeply fragile person, and authoritarians tend to be deeply insecure and deeply fragile. He was standing among American heroes, both the symbols of them on the wall and the living heroes in that room, and he chose to speak about himself and promote himself. It’s characteristic of who he is.

In some ways, it was good for that to happen. It was good for him to make that distinction. For him to show up that way, I think he demonstrated clearly to the personnel at the [CIA] the type of man that he is. He revealed his true nature directly to them in their building and in front of a great symbol of their sacrifices.

Sean Illing

He didn’t reveal his nature at the agency on that day; he just affirmed it, as he has since he launched his presidential campaign over a year ago. To your credit, you were one of the first Republicans to take a strong stand against Trump early in the campaign. What did you see then?

Evan McMullin

I thought he demonstrated some authoritarian tendencies that I’d seen elsewhere in the world as an intelligence officer. I believed he was exploiting some real challenges that some Americans are facing economically and otherwise, and I’d seen authoritarian leaders do that overseas as well. It seemed very clear to me that Trump was cut from the same cloth.

Given my experience with autocrats and authoritarian overseas, it was my responsibility — if no one else would do it — to speak up.

Sean Illing

You mentioned your experiences overseas with similarly authoritarian-minded leaders. Do any in particular come to mind?

Evan McMullin

Some of the tactics he uses and some of his rhetoric is really commonplace among authoritarians across regions and time. It’s a lot of the authoritarians he spoke about in the campaign and said he respected — Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, to name a few. These kinds of leaders draw from a familiar playbook that’s very well-established and quickly understood by people who make a study of it, people who witness it, or people who are themselves wired as authoritarians. I think Donald Trump is one of the latter.

Sean Illing

Your focus on tactics is noteworthy. With Trump, it seems it’s about power for power’s sake, not fidelity to an ideology or worldview.

Evan McMullin

He respects power. It’s entirely about power — more specifically, his own power. It’s a fundamental departure from the foundational ideas of our country, which are that all men and women are created free and that government derives its power only from the people and that power remains accountable to the people. The fact that the power remains accountable to the people means that that power continues belong to the people, and in that, they remain free despite their obligations to civil society or to society more generally.

Donald Trump Hosts Canadian PM Justin Trudeau At The White House
President Donald Trump speaks as he participates in a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sean Illing

And Trump is a departure from this tradition?

Evan McMullin

His belief is that power does not ultimately belong to the people but rather to him. He and other authoritarians talk about their popular support, and they often misrepresent their popular support. Their rhetoric is centered around the idea that they are deriving their power from the people. Most often, that’s not actually the case, which puts them in a difficult position because poll numbers and election numbers demonstrate that they are not supported by the majority, and that jeopardizes their quest for personal power.

So that’s why you see Donald Trump and other authoritarians attacking electoral systems and the results of elections, because they need to do that when the results are at odds with their rhetoric. But the fact that they do this shows that they don’t actually believe their power derives from the people.

Sean Illing

Given everything you’ve just said, given the stakes, can you explain or defend the cowardice of congressional Republicans before Trump?

Evan McMullin

I can’t defend that. I won’t defend that. You served in the military, right?

Sean Illing

I did.

Evan McMullin

I imagine you learned this in the military and probably also as a former political theory professor: The truth is that most people don’t understand authoritarianism. It’s new to them. A lot of Americans are simply unprepared to recognize it and unprepared to recognize its dangers. I think the same thing applies to most members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Of course we see most of the opposition coming from the left, from the Democratic side in Congress, which is really more about policy issues, and that’s fine. That’s what they should be doing. They disagree with some of the policy initiatives of Trump and the Republicans, and they’re opposing those things. But there are few who understand the danger of Trump based on his authoritarianism, of the true threat he poses to our country’s system of government and ultimately to our basic rights.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure the Democrats and Republicans are even remotely comparable in this respect.

Evan McMullin

No doubt there are differences. As far as the Republicans are concerned, many of them don’t understand the threat. On top of that, Republicans stand to gain some policy wins through Trump’s presidency, and that’s something that authoritarians will often do. That is, because they want some political support, they identity groups of people they can favor and whose interests they can advance — that’s how they get people to go along with the agenda. And that’s what we see happening with Donald Trump.

Sean Illing

We need leaders to be better than we are, and such leaders are lacking. As Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote last week, our only hope at this point is that Congress will do its job and check Trump’s overreaches.

Do you have any confidence that they will do this?

Evan McMullin

The only confidence I have in that possibility comes from my hope that the American people will make it a political imperative, that Republicans and Democrats will stand up in defense of our democracy and our norms and institutions. That’s what must happen.

In the future, I believe the American people must be far more politically and civically engaged, identifying wise and honest leaders and promoting them in office more proactively, rather than taking a more passive approach as they’ve done for decades. Clearly, that is no longer acceptable.

The dangers are too real and too omnipresent.

Independent Presidential Candidate Evan McMullin Holds Election Night Event
Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin listens to his running mate Mindy Finn speak to supporters at an election night party on November 8, 2016.
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Sean Illing

Are we staring down a constitutional crisis?

Evan McMullin

It’s hard to say. I think Donald Trump is clearly challenging our Constitution. I think the thing to watch right now is how he responds to rulings from the judiciary. Does the executive branch obey them? Does he respect them even if he disagrees with them? Does he as the chief executive officer of the country instruct the executive branch to obey those rulings, or will his rhetoric continue to undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary?

I don’t think we’re in a constitutional crisis just yet, but I do think Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of the administration is such that we may be headed there.

Sean Illing

I worry about what happens when this administration is confronted by a foreign policy crisis or a major domestic terror attack. I don’t say this lightly, but Trump appears deeply unstable to me. The potential for catastrophic overreach is utterly terrifying.

Evan McMullin

I think you’re right. I’m very concerned that Donald Trump would take advantage of a crisis to assert more control to usurp power over the American people. I also believe the administration is trying to overwhelm the American people with a variety of actions and controversies to desensitize us to the erosion of our liberties but then also to be able to accomplish more than if they tried to roll things out slowly, one by one.

Sean Illing

There does seem to be a kind of “shock and awe” campaign afoot.

Evan McMullin

At the end of the election, there was a lot of concern about the Russians’ efforts to influence our elections. And then that story sort of disappeared amid all the daily trivialities and distractions. We’re only talking about it again because of the latest allegations around Michael Flynn.

But there are multiple controversies coming from the administration. Meanwhile, they are rushing through a range of executive orders. There’s a reason they wouldn’t go through the normal process with their sweeping immigration ban. They knew that there would be objections. They knew as soon as they start to engage with the various departments about the intentions of the administration, there would be leaks and opposition would grow before they could institute an executive order. I believe that was by design.

Sean Illing

I take it you don’t buy any of the administration’s talking points about why they needed to move swiftly and in secret?

Evan McMullin

You have Trump saying things like, we have to move quickly; if we didn’t move quickly, then so many bad people would pour into the country. Well, there’s no real evidence of that, because we already have immigration systems designed to protect against that. They’re not foolproof, but they’ve had the benefit of many years of experience and adjustment since 9/11 and even before that. And so we don’t have this urgent problem where people are pouring into the country to do us harm.

Sean Illing

So what becomes of the conservative movement? Is the Republican Party salvageable after this capitulation?

Evan McMullin

I think that already it’s necessary for a new conservative movement, which is something we talked about on the campaign. We started that, and it exists. There are people out there who identify as conservatives, not Republicans. Whether a new party emerges on the right will depend largely on how Donald Trump governs. If he continues to govern the way he said he would govern and the way he is actually governing, then the prospects for a new party on the right increase.

But I think the election demonstrated that people were not yet ready for that. Donald Trump was most unpopular in the Mountain West where toward the end of the campaign we spent a lot of time. Ultimately, he won — not by much, but he won. Republicans ultimately chose Donald Trump, even in places where his approval rating was very low. If that’s the case, if people are willing to vote for a candidate that they so dislike and so distrust, then they’re not quite ready for a new party.

But if he continues to govern as an authoritarian, there will be some on the conservative side that say, enough is enough. If this is to be the nature of the Republican Party, it’s time for something else.