In a just world, every left-leaning commentator who made a joke in 2012 about Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" would be teleported to Utah for the waning moments of Evan McMullin's Quixotic campaign to become the first third-party presidential candidate to win a state since George Wallace in 1968. There on the trail, from his hometown of Provo to Richfield to Cedar City, those who sneered at the atavistic gender values of Mormons would be startled to discover a 40-year-old candidate and his 36-year-old female vice presidential partner drawing enthusiastic applause for their repeated insistence that, contra the values embraced by Donald Trump, "all men and women are created equal."
At a brisk rally Saturday night attended by around 250 people in the southwestern Utah city of St. George, McMullin and his running mate, Mindy Finn, repeatedly quoted and referenced the Declaration of Independence while stressing that their proposed "new conservative moment" would be centered on "liberty and equality." Along with a strong emphasis on states' rights—always a crowd-pleaser in a religiously idiosyncratic state in constant conflict with the federal government over land use—the McMullin/Finn defense of pluralistic values against the degradations of Trump was by far the biggest emphasis, dwarfing treatment of such issues as national security and abortion.
"We should never have a religious test in this country," McMullin said from the stage, with a note of exasperation. "An attack on one citizen…is an attack on all of us." Both candidates reserved some of their sharpest outrage for politicians who lacked the courage to defy Trump's collectivist vulgarity. "We need to stop relying on leaders that didn't have the courage to stand up for us," he said, in one of the biggest applause lines of the night.
In their campaign RV after the speech, I caught up with McMullin and Finn to hear their sales pitch to voters skeptical of government power. While the conversation started with discussion of federalism, reforming entitlements, and more strictly interpreting the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, and continued into some perhaps-surprising territories of opposing bulk metadata collection and the Iraq War (the latter at least in retrospect), the subject kept returning to the intolerable outrages of a Trumpified GOP. "A lot of the people in the party, people like us, people who are gravitating toward our campaign," Finn said, "they don't want any part of a party that normalizes bigotry."
McMullin and Finn are both Marco Rubio conservatives—each supported the Florida senator in the primaries, citing his positions on national security and inclusiveness. But they have a more circumspect approach toward government power than many of the Washington neoconservatives who have championed their campaign. Whether they have put themselves in position to influence a post-Trump Republican Party is still very much an open question, but compared to the statism of the major-party candidates, theirs is a welcome addition to a dreary if interesting political season.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
Q: Make the positive case for you and your ticket, on liberty-movement grounds. Make the pitch to people who want to reduce the size and the scope of government.
Evan McMullin: Well, Mindy and I are very committed to returning power to the states. We want to decrease the size of the federal government. You have to reform entitlement programs in order to do that. In 2014, I think, the federal government spent $3.7 trillion, and the states combined spent $1.4–1.5 trillion. It just shows you how lopsided state power versus federal power is.
Q: It was amazing to me here…the extent to which that was about the most popular message. Has that been pretty consistent going through Utah?
EM: Yeah, no, that's all across the state, that is consistent. And that's a great thing, because I do see it as that returning power to the states, shrinking the size of the federal government—I see that as the solution to a lot of our problems. We can unify if we accept that certain different states are going to do different things, they're going to have different solutions for different challenges that they face. We can't have one-size-fits-all uniform solutions being pushed down from Washington and expect to be united.
If that's what we're going to have, a large centralized federal government, then we're all going to fight over the uniform decisions that come from the central government….So we've got to return power to the states. And we can unify around each other's liberty, recognizing that states will do different things. We're the laboratories for democracy on the state level, and that's what needs to happen. I believe the best ideas, the best governance, will rise to the top.
Q: When did that stop being something that Republicans talked about with any kind of regularity? I mean, that sounds familiar to me, I remember Republicans saying these things.
EM: Well, I think it has to do with the decision to interpret the Commerce Clause to the Constitution very liberally, to the point that the federal government believes that it can engage on anything. And that's where it got away from the very specific delineated activities that the Constitution gives it authority over, and into basically every part of governance of our country. So it's about returning to the Commerce Clause, and really interpreting that more strictly as it's written, that limits the scope of federal government activity. And then all the rest should be assumed by the states, which is according to the 10th Amendment and otherwise the Constitution requires.
Q: Now, you reform entitlements, that's one of the three main drivers [of government growth]. But you also want to spend more money on defense than we're currently spending.
EM: Yeah, but not massively more. But we do need to keep up our defense. Look, I hate war, I've served in multiple wars, it's the most awful thing that anyone can imagine.
Q: And you were against Iraq?
EM: I was, yeah, but I will say that, you know, I served in Iraq—when I was in the Central Intelligence Agency I was there to serve, and I saw that my country was in a bad place in Iraq, and I thought I could make a positive contribution, so I went. But you know, in retrospect—and of course it's easy to say in retrospect—but I do believe that it was a mistake for us to go in Iraq. I still probably would have served there, because, you know, you stand up when your country's in trouble, and that's what I did. But I do believe that wasn't a wise move, it cost us a lot of blood and treasure, and we've got to have a new foreign policy that I don't believe withdraws U.S. leadership in the world—I think that's important—but we've got to get out of this situation where we drift between two extremes: either we're invading countries we don't need to invade, or we're withdrawing leadership from the world entirely, therefore creating a vacuum into which Vladimir Putin, ISIS, and all these destructive forces flow.
So I think there's a middle ground where we work with allies more so that we don't do all the heavy lifting, we get ahead of problems before they become crises, before they cost so much.
Q: But that also can get you to, you know, a pinprick Libya strike because you're helping out people who are fighting against a terrible dictator, right? I mean, it's not that far from a Hillary Clinton, who's more interventionist than Obama, but not, you know, as much as the Bush/Cheney White House was.
EM: Yeah, but she also is very naïve about her interactions with global leaders. I mean, this whole reset with Russia thing just opened the doors, just empowered Russia. The same thing with the Iran deal, just totally empowered the Mullahs in Iran to continue to fund terrorism, to destabilize the Middle East and the world.
Look, I understand your point, and it's a judgment call, it's going to be a judgment call all the time. But I can give you two specific examples where we could have done more.
For example, with regard to ISIS: The Iraqis came to us in August of 2013, and said "Will you give us a bunch of weapons to strike these camps?" ISIS was in camps in the Iraqi desert near the Syrian border….This hasn't been nearly covered enough. And we said "No, we won't give them weapons." And we had our reasons, the Obama administration had reasons, fine. But then three months later, the Iraqis came back and said "All right, if you won't give us these weapons, will you strike these camps, because these guys are coming at us, they've got vehicles, lots of personnel, weapons, etc., they're going to launch an attack against the country." We just didn't—or the Obama administration didn't—answer, and we know the history: They launched an attack, and they took over large swaths of Iraq. We could have wiped all of these guys out with minimum civilian casualties, if any, when they were encamped in this desert, and Obama took a pass. That was stupid. We should have struck those camps. So much human suffering, so much threat to the United States has resulted from that stupid decision….We can't find ourselves in this situation again.
The other thing is Ebola. We had this massive Ebola crisis, where thousands and thousands of people lost their lives in West Africa. That's not the United States, but it threatened the United States so much so that we had to send our military out there. Congress appropriated over $5 billion to respond to that crisis; we spent about $2 billion, that's a ton of money. Now what I would say is that we knew the health infrastructure there was non-existent in West Africa, would it not have been better to have spent $25 million and have gotten the Brits and the French and the others to spend the same amount of money, and set up basic health infrastructure there that would have at least alerted the world and the locals to an Ebola outbreak before it caused the global havoc that it did?
That's what I'm talking about. But you can't do that if you have leaders that don't know anything about the world, or who choose to overreact or underreact. We just have had very poor leadership on foreign policy.
Q: Quickly, if possible, NSA surveillance: A lot of people from the freedom movement within the Republican Party, Mike Lee included, have been pretty staunch critics of what we've learned through Edward Snowden and other people. Where do you stand on that, as someone who was an intelligence officer?
EM: Well yeah, I mean, look: I believe that we do need the technical means to meet the challenges to national security that we face. But I also think that we've got to be better about respecting our civil liberties. For example while I was working in Congress, one of the things that we fixed about the PATRIOT Act was the bulk collection of metadata, which is something that I opposed, I think it's unconstitutional. So what did we do? We did away with that. Now…service providers collect that data, they do it anyway, they hold it 18 months for billing purposes, and if the federal government wants access to it they have to go get a warrant, and then they can get access to it. And that was signed into law.
I think we're in this situation—and Mindy comes from the technology space—but we're in this situation where technology is evolving very, very quickly, the world is sort of less stable, and we've got a lot of new threats, or threats period, and we're trying to figure out how to better balance technology with the protection of our civil liberties. A lot of my intelligence colleagues are all about, you know, even the bulk collection of metadata. I'm opposed to that. I do think we need strong intelligence, we need technical means, but we've got to find a way to balance our civil liberties. And I think we're just going through some learning, some growing pains in that regard, but we need to make sure we get it right.
Now with regard to Snowden: I do think he brought to light some things that needed to be brought to light, however I disagree with the way he did it. I think he should have gone to Congress, he should have gone to Rand Paul, he should have gone to other members of Congress who are very sensitive to these issues. And I think that he would have had a sympathetic audience, and I believe that they would have taken action. Instead he went to the press, and dubious press, and to foreign countries that are some of the most oppressive countries on earth. And so I just question all of that. But I do think that we've got to be careful about how we protect our civil liberties in this new age of technology.
Q: You referenced Rand Paul. We had a lot of people running for president on the GOP side. As people are trying to figure you out…who are you most like? I mean, some people say "Well, he's kind of like Rubio, I can see a little bit there maybe." Who do you self-identify with, or how would you describe yourself in that field?
EM: For me it's, yeah, I voted for Rubio in Virginia. I did that because I believed he was the best on national security, and because I thought he would open the Republican Party to people of different races and religions, and that's something that's important to me. I also liked what I thought was Ted Cruz's commitment to the Constitution, which now I wonder about in his support of Donald Trump. I liked Rand Paul too, for his commitment to liberty and to reforming the government. And there were others who I liked, too.
Nobody's perfect, none of these candidates are perfect humans, but I liked elements of many of them. But I just opposed early on, as Mindy did, Donald Trump.
Q: How about you, Mindy?
Mindy Finn: I have similar views on that count: I voted for Rubio as well…for the same reasons, I thought he was best on national security, his personal story actually demonstrated that conservative values can work for anyone, regardless of where they come from. And that was an appealing story; I think that would appeal to minorities, African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and others. And also he talked a lot about the economy, and how it's shifting and changing…
Similar to Evan I liked some things in the other candidates. I thought all of them were preferable to Donald Trump.
Q: You've been quoted…in recent weeks that the Republican Party has a pretty serious race problem at this point. What's your snapshot analysis of that kind of pathology?
MF: I think the party has failed to guard their principles on that point, and I think because of that they're more vulnerable to attacks that they're racist and sexist. Because they don't talk about equality…in the way that we are as a campaign, and certainly that allowed Donald Trump to rise. And for them to be wavering? I mean, if you really care about equality, you saw Donald Trump demeaning, right out of the gate when he announced his campaign, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, demeaning women, insulting our veterans, making fun of people with disabilities, you would know right away that that was something to stand up against. You wouldn't waver. They did waver. And even for those who had called out specific actions, it has not been enough for them to back off from Donald Trump, they lacked the courage to do so.
So what that means for the party going forward: Donald Trump has stoked a lot of this racism, he's brought out the white nationalists who have come out and attacked us. So he's done that. But I think this is stuff that was stewing under the surface before, this is a party that talked about the importance of outreach, but it was pretty clear that it didn't value and respect particular communities. Even as it made policy, it hasn't thought about policy from the lines of what's going to work for all, what's going to work for African American communities, what's going to help women…
And now this party's at the point where going forward, I think, either it makes that full-throated argument, repudiates the racism, the sexism, the bigotry of Donald Trump, which has become mainstreamed and normalized in his campaign, or the party will fracture and break apart. Because a lot of the people in the party, people like us, people who are gravitating toward our campaign, they don't want any part of a party that normalizes bigotry.
EM: What she said.
Look, I was raised by Republicans and among Republicans who were open to people of all faiths, of all races, who treated women with respect….But I have seen in working inside the Republican Party establishment that there are other kinds of Republicans and Republican voters who are not open to people of different backgrounds. And I believe that Republican leaders broadly, I believe that they have failed to lead on this issue. I think either they've failed to notice that there's a problem—which I think is a big part of it, because still you hear the comments they make, and they still don't get it, so they failed to acknowledge that there's a problem; it's sort of like denial, right? Or maybe they know there's a problem but they haven't done anything about it.
What's required is first acknowledgment that there's an issue, and then it's what Mindy says, it's making a full-throated repudiation of those ideas. And then actually going to these communities, and welcoming them into the conservative moment, into the party, listening to them, listening to the challenges they face. I mean, the free market principles can help these people, and a lot of education reform that gives them more opportunity to go to better schools, school choice, this sort of thing. Criminal justice reform. Again, these are all consistent with liberty. Anti-poverty programs, reforming those as well so they don't get in their way; too often our programs get in the way of progress.
So we need to go listen to these communities, we need to help them solve their problems. I believe that free market principles, the kind of principles I think a lot of libertarians embrace, I believe they can help solve these problems. But too often Republican leaders, they don't go listen. And they don't fight for these people. And they should: That would be consistent with true conservatism. That's what we're doing, that's what we believe true conservatism is.
Q: I'll close on this….What have you learned about the institutional power of two-party systems, two-party thinking, that you didn't know three months ago?
EM: You know, it hasn't surprised me that things like the debates are controlled by the two parties, ballot access is really hard—none of that's been a surprise. I think the biggest surprise for me has been the grip, the psychological grip that the two parties have on voters in America, where people are really cowed too often into believing that those are their only choices.
It's just like in business: You don't want a monopoly, because then consumers get abused. But duopolies sort of end up in the same place, where at some point they realize that they shouldn't compete too much, and that they should basically cooperate, they should never compete, for example, on price. And then the consumer ends up being abused, just like they would by a monopoly.
I sort of think that that's where we find ourselves now, where people are just so used to thinking that they can only vote for one of these two parties. The Republican Party was founded, I think, in what, 1854? It's been a long, long time, so people don't realize that parties do have a life cycle, they do begin, they are born, and they do die. And that life cycle, that arc, is too long for people to remember, because people's lives are shorter than that. But the reality is I believe that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are at serious risk of reaching the end of their life cycles. And we are here, if that's the case, to provide the way forward.
And it will be a battle, because of the power that they have. But ultimately the power comes from the people, the power comes from votes, and 70 to 80 percent of Americans feel that the country's on the wrong track. An increasing number are independents, a decreasing number are with either party. Millennials are unaffiliated. So the opportunity is very, very big for disruption in this space, and I think it will happen.