It is hard to remember that the “real” candidates are supposedly a vitriolic real estate mogul and a woman whose ethical radar is permanently on the fritz. It is, however, the guy who got into the race just four weeks ago with no political experience and no experience in pay-to-play malfeasance who is composed, thoughtful and — like a lot of Americans — stunned that we have these two candidates running for the highest office.
In a conference room in his campaign’s D.C. office, Evan McMullin has tough words for both the major-party candidates. “I think both of these candidates are terribly corrupt,” he says. “Donald Trump says he is not beholden to anyone, but he’s beholden to the Kremlin.” He points to the farcical scene on Tuesday where retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, one of many Trump advisers with Russia ties, questioned Trump on foreign policy. “Trump took the opportunity to advocate for closer relations with Russia even while Vladimir Putin is engaged in undermining our democracy,” McMullin says incredulously in pointing to the leaks from hackers tied to the Kremlin. “Donald Trump is being played by Russia, is being manipulated by them.” McMullin, a former CIA operations officer, should know a professional infiltration operation when he sees one.
McMullin just announced that he has qualified for the ballot in South Carolina, the 20th state where he is either on the printed ballot or a registered write-in. He notes that current Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), after losing the GOP primary, won her seat with a write-in campaign, and past presidential candidates have won primary states by write-in. Beyond his home state of Utah, McMullin sees the Mountain West, where both Clinton and Trump did poorly in the primaries, as fertile ground for his efforts, along with Minnesota (which has a history of electing independents) and Virginia, home to many military personnel, where he managed to clear the ballot requirements that have tripped up many professional politicians.
McMullin does not have the artificial confidence and bluster of most politicians. In person, he is soft-spoken but precise with his words. He doesn’t pretend that the day-to-day grind of raising money and sitting for interviews is “fun.” “It is gratifying,” he says. He took on the arduous task of running for president as an unknown because he felt he had to do something. Plainly he is taken aback by the GOP’s willingness to stand behind Trump. “How many members of Congress are remaining silent or even supporting him? This is our problem.” He notes the Founders risked their lives for their country. “Here politicians won’t even risk speaking up for fear of losing the next election.”
Alarmed by the potential for bad precedent in presidential elections, McMullin bashes Trump for refusing to release his taxes and medical records. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that we’d consider for president someone who hasn’t released his taxes and health records.” In using an alleged audit to avoid releasing his taxes, Trump “is putting his own interests above those of Americans.”
McMullin says he has several goals in running. One is to block both major candidates from getting to 270 electoral votes, throwing the election to the House. He concedes that will be “very difficult.” However, “Another goal is to give conservatives who were going to sit home a reason to vote,” he says. That would surely help down-ticket Republicans. “Just as important are goals for the country,” he says. “Being a voice for tolerance and liberty in an election that lacks both [values].” He continues, “If we are only successful in one category, it will have been worth it.”
He urges newspaper editorial boards, some of which have interviewed Libertarian Gary Johnson, to meet him. “I think it would be to the benefit of the American people and their readers if editorial boards were to hear from more than two parties, especially when 42 percent of Americans are independents and the [major-party] candidates are so disliked.” Indeed, editorial boards could interview the GOP, Democratic and Libertarian candidates this time and never hear an argument for a strong American presence in the world.
McMullin’s candidacy has gotten a surprisingly robust response in just four weeks. They have 60,000 volunteers willing to help with ballot qualification, outreach and other jobs. “They’re self-organizing faster than we can organize,” McMullin observes. In particular, he is getting a positive response from millennials, who view both major candidates warily.
Indeed, it is with the millennial generation that the future of a center-right party may rest. This is the generation empowered by technology, wary of top-down government and, says McMullin, looking for “tolerance, a little kindness.”
It is not at all clear to him that the Republican Party will survive and provide those and other voters with an alternative to the Democratic Party going forward. The taint of Trump is going to last a while. “It is going to be very, very difficult for the Republican Party to recover — not impossible, but difficult,” he remarks. Whether it does survive, he argues, depends on what Republicans do in this election. “If they didn’t repudiate Trump before the election, they will have significantly less credibility when they try to do so after the election.” He argues, “There is still time to repudiate his misogyny, bigotry, foreign policy ideas and lack of fiscal responsibility.”
McMullin might tip the balance in some states, but his highest calling may be summoning Republicans to avoid besmirching their own reputations and the image of the party by going down with the Trump Titanic. He says, “This is a litmus test for leadership.” Republicans might consider that admonition when deciding after the next Trump outrage comes — and it will — whether they should jump off the Trump train to political and moral safety. The ones who do will be much better positioned to clean up the pieces after November.