Will a Coalition of Hawks, Mormons, and Libertarian-Leaners Form a New Third Party?
Three reasons to be skeptical about Evan McMullin's latest political initiative.
Evan McMullin, a conservative ex-CIA analyst so disgusted with former President Donald Trump that he launched an independent presidential campaign in 2016, got on 11 state ballots, and finished in fifth place with 0.5 percent of the popular vote, has co-announced on Thursday a "new political movement" of 150 mostly right-of-center political figures, including former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former Rep. Joe Walsh (R–Ill.), and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, three conservatives so disgusted with Trump that they ran against him in the 2020 GOP presidential primary and lost by a combined 93 percentage points.
In a joint letter precipitated by the removal of Rep. Liz Cheney (R–Wyo.) from Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, and patterned consciously after the Declaration of Independence, McMullin and his anti-Trump co-signatories "declare our intent to catalyze an American renewal, and to either reimagine a party dedicated to our founding ideals or else hasten the creation of such an alternative."
As a political project, the would-be catalyzers face extremely long odds. The playing field of American politics these past six years has been littered with the corpses of failed or stillborn attempts to challenge Trump from the right. The only lasting third-party alternative in that span "dedicated to our founding ideals" is one that has put in a half-century of grunt work to get one percent of the vote.
But as a media and fundraising initiative, the effort may find more fertile terrain. McMullin's co-organizer of American Renewal is Miles Taylor, a government security analyst known mostly for being the anonymous author of the 2018 New York Times op-ed "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration," which he then spun into the bestselling 2019 book A Warning. In August 2020, a no-longer-anonymous Taylor accused his former boss of "playing…on the Russian team and not the American team," and filmed a two-minute advertisement for Republican Voters Against Trump, a project launched by the 501(c)(4) group Republicans for the Rule of Law, which was co-founded by veteran Washington commentator and political schemer Bill Kristol.
"I'm still a Republican, but I'm hanging on by the skin of my teeth because how quickly the party has divorced itself from truth and reason," Taylor told The New York Times this week. "I'm one of those in the group that feels very strongly that if we can't get the G.O.P. back to a rational party that supports free minds, free markets, and free people, I'm out and a lot of people are coming with me."
Those people attracted to such concepts as truth, reason, "free minds," and "free markets" may find themselves nodding along to some of the principles espoused in the letter, especially if they have a strong stomach for portentous language. (The first line of the declaration reads: "These United States, born of noble convictions and aspiring to high purpose, have been an exemplar of self-government to humankind.")
McMullin, Taylor, & Co. favor "open, market-based economies…consistent with our natural liberty," reject "populism and illiberalism, whether of the right or the left," and stress that "it is the prerogative of all to make personal decisions in accordance with their free will." They want to welcome lawful immigrants, keep regulation limited, and protect property rights. So far, so unobjectionable.
Where the manifesto begins to diverge most sharply from the Libertarian Party platform is the unspecific yet ambitious paragraph titled "Leadership": "Having thrived in the abundance of a choice land, we believe that these United States must work in conjunction with friends and allies to advance worthy interests abroad and to promote freedom by example and with the judicious application of power."
This passage, in a document arranged by two security-state veterans, and unveiled in the service of supporting Liz Cheney, is a good prompt to cross-check some of the names on the bottom of the petition. Sure enough, #NeverTrump 6.0 is endorsed by several people with fingerprints all over an activist foreign policy.
There is Michael Hayden, former director of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, who lied to Congress about torture programs, has likened air strikes to "casual sex," and made jokes about putting Edward Snowden on a kill list. There is former national intelligence director and serial ambassador to geostrategic countries (Honduras in the 1980s, Iraq in the aughts) John Negroponte, former State Department counselor and World War IV booster Eliot A. Cohen, and former Department of Homeland Security chief and indefinite-detention enthusiast Michael Chertoff, among several other lesser-known veterans of the George W. Bush administration.
Many of these same people lent their names to anti-Trump efforts in 2016 on foreign policy grounds, then cheered on the Russia-related investigations that dogged the 45th president, and are now threatening to start their own party if Trumpism isn't sufficiently cleansed from the GOP.
That pro-market anti-Trumpers are talking about a third party while ignoring the Libertarians, even though one of the signatories (Weld) ran as the L.P. vice presidential nominee as recently as 2016, touches on each of the three main obstacles to herding Trump-averse non-Democrats into anything like a single tent.
1) The three biggest anti-Trump blocs are ideologically incompatible. It has been clear since the dawn of the Trump era that opposition to the crudely mannered America First mercantilist would come most intensely from foreign policy hawks (John McCain, John Kasich, Bill Kristol), libertarian-leaners (Justin Amash, Mark Sanford, George Will), and Mormons (Evan McMullin, Mitt Romney, Jeff Flake).
While Latter-day Saints members can swing between hawkery and dovery (just think of the significant ideological split between Utah's Republican delegation to the U.S. Senate), the fault lines are obvious: Libertarians and neocons generally dislike one another, and even the most loosey-goosey of Mormons have a hard time embracing the full legal logic of personal autonomy for consenting adults. Any movement that requires these camps to get along will likely be short-term and transactional, not unlike the 2016 third-party voters who in 2020 held their noses to vote for President Joe Biden.
2) Noisy anti-Trumpism is mostly incompatible with holding elected office as a Republican. The American Renewal letter signatures look like the roster of a political reunion for the Class of '95. In addition to two-time Massachusetts Gov. Weld, there's former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, former California Rep. Tom Campbell, former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, former Oklahoma Rep. Mickey Edwards, former Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, and dozens of others unburdened by the need to win reelection from the modern Republican electorate.
Of the vanishingly few current office-holders on the list, they tend to share a rare characteristic: recent defection from the GOP. Jim Hendren was the Republican majority leader of the Arkansas Senate until this January, when, disgusted by the Capitol riot, he stepped down from leadership, and then the next month left the party altogether. And California State Assemblyman Chad Mayes, the former Republican minority leader, left the party in late 2019 after drawing fire for his criticisms of Trump.
Prior to his departure, Mayes engaged in the kind of Third Way/No Labels activity common among many signatories of the American Renewal letter. From his Wikipedia page:
In January 2018, Mayes formed "New Way California," aiming to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party by advocating for "individual freedom, shared responsibility, educational excellence, environmental stewardship, efficient government and an open economy." The group has been publicly supported by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and both Mayes and Schwarzenegger – along with Ohio governor John Kasich – headlined the group's inaugural summit in Los Angeles on March 21….The summit was criticized by some in the California Republican Party, including former chairman Ron Nehring, who described them as "elites talking down to grassroots voters."
As an independent and non-fan of Trump, I share the Renewalists' embarrassment at mainstream GOP fear of crossing Trump voters. Yet that is the world we live in. If you want to hold office as a Republican, and spend any measurable amount of time criticizing the former president, you better have a safe seat, stature, and bank vaults full of cash. Even then, you're going to get booed.
3) At a time of intense negative polarization, centrist scolds are popular mostly in limited corners of the media, and among opportunistic anti-Trump partisans. See: Jeff Flake, Howard Schultz, John Kasich, etc.
Arguably the most successful anti-Trump centrist initiative, at least as measured by revenue and media reach, has been The Lincoln Project, a political action committee of former GOP political operatives that raised scores of millions of dollars from Democrats to run anti-Trump ads in 2020. The project has been dogged by all kinds of scandal and controversy, particularly after the election was safely delivered to Biden.
Three of the American Renewal signatories—George Conway, Jennifer Horn, and Mike Madrid—were co-founders of The Lincoln Project; former Michigan GOP executive Jeff Timmer, too, has been a key member. Evan McMullin's most likely path to success lies less in the direction of dreary third-party construction, and more in a Lincoln Project-style initiative to raise money and make noise about the Republican Party's regnant Trumpism.
But there's an obstacle on that road, too. America's high alert about Trump has nowhere to go but down. The man is not the president, he is not going to be the president, and most people worried about such have moved on with their lives. Sure, I would love to see a GOP that explicitly rejects its most internally popular figure, just as I would love to see a Democratic Party worried about the national debt. In either case, the short-term chances of that happening are the same: slim, none, and fat.