Evan McMullin was the independent candidate of choice for many #NeverTrump Republicans in last year’s presidential election. In his native Utah he received 21 percent of the vote. On the Moment, host Brian Koppelmann talks with McMullin about his life of service, his presidential bid, and how to fight Donald Trump. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Brian Koppelman: You grew up in Utah in a religious family—Mormon. When did you first become aware that there was a government, and how did you think about its purpose?
Evan McMullin: Well, I was born in Utah, but I was actually raised in a town outside of Seattle. I grew up in a rural area. We had a few acres and had a couple of horses and sheep and chickens and that sort of thing. I worked hard growing up. But my family was lightly engaged in civic activity. We knew a state senator. I volunteered and campaigned as a kid. Eventually, I was a page in the state legislature. So those were my early experiences with government.
As you were growing up, was there an echo of Watergate, or because you were 4 years old when Ronald Reagan came into office, was it somehow different to you?
I wish I could tell that at that young age I was paying attention to what our president was doing and who it was, but I just can’t honestly say that. I will say that when I was in third grade, my mother took me and my sister back to Philadelphia where her biological family was. She had been adopted into a family in Arizona. And as a part of that trip, we came down to D.C. And as a third-grader, I was seeing the sites, going to the Smithsonian, and the monuments, and all these things, and even at that young age, Washington had such an impact on me. I felt the grandeur of the city, of the Capitol, of the seat of our government, but then also I had this feeling even as a third-grader that I would be back, that there would be something for me to do there.
You mean you felt like there was a utility, that you had something to bring to bear on what was happening?
I just had this feeling when I was that young that I would be back and that there was work for me to do. And it was perhaps just an interest. How could you not be interested with these grand buildings, and the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial, and the Jefferson? I barely understood any of it as a kid, but I did understand that great people had made it—had made a lot of sacrifices for us to be where we are as a country even then, and that was all enshrined by what I saw in Washington.
That word sacrifice is so important because we don’t live in a society that truly values the kind of sacrifice you’re talking about anymore.
Or maybe even more fundamentally you believe that the sacrifice just isn’t necessary. Over the last several decades, great sacrifices haven’t always been required. We faced the threat of Islamist terrorism. That’s still a threat that we face now. After 9/11, many people have sacrificed even their lives and gone through other hardships to stand up to Islamist terrorism, but that even that didn’t amount to, for example, what people experienced in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. For the last several decades, our basic rights, our system of government, all of this, our basic security for the most part—it’s mostly been sort of on path. We haven’t thought of any of those things as things that most of us need to sacrifice in order to have because they’re just there already.
You talk about Islamist terrorism. I’ve given a lot of thought to whether to call it radical Islamist terrorism. I tend to believe the linguists who say the word radical disappears and the great majority of people in those faiths feel maligned. But if you look at the shootings at abortion clinics or at black churches, these events have certainly happened in the country, but they’ve been small-enough scale that we can, as a culture, fool ourselves into believing it’s not our problem to solve.
I think that’s right. And on the point about how we talk about this terrorism issue, I do think that it’s important on one hand to call it what it is—you hear that a lot from conservatives—but on the other hand to be accurate and sensitive. So you have, for example, President Trump now talking about Islamic terrorism, which suggests that it has legitimacy vis-à-vis the religion of Islam, which it doesn’t, which is why many people in this faith are more comfortable with people calling it “Islamist terrorism” because you have these terrorists who see themselves as acting on behalf of their version of Islam, which is a twisted version of Islam. So you call it Islamist.
You’ve been around the world as a CIA officer. You’ve personally sacrificed. How are you able to sit in a centered place with me and discuss this stuff? Why aren’t others?
These are really big and important questions. My experience is informed by a couple of things. You mentioned my CIA service. When you start work at the CIA, one of the first things they beat into you is that you work for the president no matter who the president is. The president can be a Republican or a Democrat or neither. If the president was elected and, of course, he or she would be, then that’s who you work for regardless of party. You learn that you’re serving the country rather than a political party or an ideology.
The other part of it is that spending so much time overseas, you learn that there are all kinds of ways to talk and walk and think, and there are many ways to do something right. It’s not always just one way. I think traveling and living abroad helps you understand the value and diversity that the world naturally offers.
But here in the United States, we do have this serious problem where people—some people on the right and some people on the left—will not or cannot talk to each other, and that has helped us end up in the situation where we are today. And I’m speaking as somebody who believes that Donald Trump poses a threat to the republic. But what I’ve seen overseas is that when people polarize, when a country’s population splits and they no longer talk to each other—and it can be down religious or ethnic lines or political lines—then those people become vulnerable to demagogues who will come exploit those divisions, turn those people even further against each other, tell them lies about each other, and then you end up in a bad situation.
I am still optimistic right now because what we have a situation in which I believe our democracy is being threatened, and that is creating an opportunity for people on the right and the left, despite our differences in policy issues, to say, Wait a second. Fundamentally we need to defend our democracy and our basic rights, our adherence to the Constitution. We can agree on that. That’s existing common ground. Let’s embrace it and defend it, and then later on we can have the debates about other issues.
I don’t think most of us in our country are operating with working definitions of autocratic, dictatorship, authoritarianism. … Can you talk a little bit, from your personal experience going abroad, what you see now?
All of those words come with their own strict definitions, and you’re right that people have their own interpretations on those definitions. But I think the most fundamental thing that we need to understand and the most fundamental issue at stake here is: Where does our freedom and liberty come from? So, our founders believe that we all were born with that. So if you’re religious like me, you can say, Look, these rights come from the fact that we’re created by God and he wants us to be free. If you’re not, you can be an atheist like you and still say, Well, I think it’s just—
Man and woman’s fundamental nature is to be free. And we have to think long and hard about the ways you want to restrain and constrain that freedom.
That’s right. And we agree to give up freedom to protect other freedoms.
John Locke would talk about reasons to cede some authority to the authorities, mostly having to do with issues of safety.
Safety and roads and things like that we give up—we pay taxes, and it’s the social contract. We do these things, but the fact that we give up freedom isn’t an argument against the fact that we are innately free, right? That’s the most important thing. What our founders realized is that a government should be designed around these natural realities.
But we still have needs for security and whatnot, then we end up in the situation where we’re willingly giving up some power to the government so they can protect our remaining rights. We do it with our own consent. Therefore, we have a government that derives only its power from the people, and the power that they have is on loan to the government, and it’s accountable still to the people.
Ideally they’re servant-leaders, which our president right now would no sooner understand as a concept.
It doesn’t seem so. The point is if a government then deviates from a government that is accountable to the people, that’s when we start to get into all of these scary words like authoritarian and autocratic, which touch on different pieces of this idea that no longer is the power ultimately belonging to the people but rather to a person or to a group of people, and that’s a problem.
What seems challenging is that most people believe they’re powerless. Most people heard about checks and balances in ninth grade, but it never really applied to them. Is this a question of autocracy—what occurs when the executive sends messages somehow that they are no longer going to follow the limits set forth by the judiciary—and what do we do about that?
We have these balance of powers, but they’re only as good as our adherence to them, as our respect for them, as the respect that our leaders have for them. So, for example, conservatives right now, they’re pleased with Donald Trump’s recent Supreme Court nomination because he’s an originalist. He’s going to interpret the Constitution as defined. He’s somebody who thinks a lot about the separation of powers, and in my view right now that’s something that’s badly needed. All of that’s great for conservatives. But regardless of how you want the court to be, whether you want it to be appointed by Barack Obama or Donald Trump, if the president doesn’t respect the power of the Supreme Court, the authority of the Supreme Court or of the other courts really starts to have no power. The Supreme Court doesn’t have its own army. It has a modest police force that guards its building, but it is dependent upon our adherence to these basic norms of our system. And if those are discarded, then we’re in a world of hurt.
If the executive doesn’t respect the authority of the judiciary, and the legislative branch won’t somehow force the question, then are we already living in a dictatorship of sorts?
If that happens, then I would say that if there are no checks and the head of the executive branch would be having his or her way. I don’t think we’re there yet. I hope we don’t get there.
You worked under John Boehner and Paul Ryan.
As chief policy director for the House Republicans.
As a Democrat listening to Ryan for a long time, I thought I recognized him as somebody grappling with issues and thinking about what’s best for the country. But what I’ve started to see is somebody making really political decisions that almost seem like he knows are against what’s right. Do you see the same thing?
It pains me to think along these lines. I think Paul Ryan is a good man. I think he cares deeply about this country. He’s a policy wonk, and he’s proud of it. And I consider myself sort of of the same mold to a degree. He is prioritizing advancing policies that he thinks are critical for the American people over confronting Donald Trump.
That’s the decision he’s made. Obviously, I’ve made another—to confront Trump and sort of put the other policy issues a little bit on the side while we ensure that our democracy and our Constitution are upheld. Without a functioning republic or democracy, without adherence to our Constitution, then everything just slides, and nothing else matters in my way of thinking.
I do wish that we would see more pushback from Ryan at this point. I think it’s time for that. I think we’ll see more opportunities for him to do that. I hope that he will, but I will tell you that ultimately it falls upon us, we, the American people, to make it a political imperative for them to do it.
What do you see now as your role in agitating to get them to stand firm against it?
We have to make it a political imperative for members of Congress to stand up when necessary. I still have hope that things are going to be OK, but there are enough negative signals out there that we need to be active, and we need to organize, and we need to take action. That means every American must make it a personal habit to engage weekly, if not daily, with their representatives in Congress. That means calling every day. That means showing up to visit their local office or going to Washington.
Does it work?
It absolutely works. I spent almost four years there. It matters when people show up. It matters when people call. People send emails, too. That can be effective. But the better thing to do is to call and/or show up in person at your representative’s door. They all have local offices, or you can go to Washington. You should do both if you can. But call and show up in person.
And then in addition to that, be very active on social media. You see that President Trump is engaging as his primary platform on Twitter. That’s where you have an opportunity to engage him back. We all need to do that. And not only with Donald Trump, but with our elected representatives in Congress. And donate to causes that support candidates who are standing up to Trump when necessary—standing up for our Constitution, standing up for our democracy. Donate to their campaigns. If they’re not doing that, donate to their opponents.
Are you willing to support Democrats if you get the sense that they’re going to hold them accountable as opposed to Republicans?
That’s going to be a tough question for a lot of conservatives. I ran for president because I didn’t feel like I could vote for Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons. I thought that she was corrupt. Now I’ll say that I imagined and was correct, I think so far, that her level of corruption was child’s play compared to what we see in Donald Trump already.
But it’s a very difficult question. I’m more driven by principle than I am by party, especially at this point. I have serious differences with traditional Democrats over the size of government, which I think makes us vulnerable to demagogues like Donald Trump who can then take power and use that enormously expansive federal government to do whatever they want.
But if they were a Democratic demagogue, I would be voting for the people I thought were the responsible Republicans to get rid of that.
This is a very important point. What is happening now in response to the potential threat of authoritarianism in the United States is that the political paradigm is shifting. It used to be totally defined by You’re pro-choice, I’m pro-life. Traditionally we would be divided by that. But now you are going to have a shift in the politics of the country in which it becomes pro-authoritarian and anti-authoritarian. It doesn’t mean that we start agreeing on everything. We won’t. But we will say we’ve got to stand up to this demagogue together.
What did it feel like for you when you decided to stand up?
Scary, absolutely. I’ve always been somebody who’s been more comfortable in the shadows. You’re sort of trained to be that way in the agency—we would sometimes call ourselves “gray men.”
When I worked in Congress, it was just a similar sort of thing. I was a senior leadership staffer, but I wasn’t a member of Congress, and I was comfortable with that. But ultimately I’ve really been driven by service to the country and by doing whatever I think is necessary for the country, and that is what drove me to run for office in the way that I did when I saw that no one else was going to do it.
Is one of the ways you know you’re doing the right thing that a sense of calm exists for you in it?
I went through a process to make the decision, and that process lasted about 10 days and involved me trying to learn as much as possible—gathering facts, talking to as many people as I could who I trusted to give me information that I could then feed into this system in my head that would help me make a logical decision about what was right to do.
Along the way, a member of Congress who I spoke to about this said, I can’t give you advice on this because it’s going to be a decision you make based on conviction, and that’s all you. Only you can decide. And I thought that was a cop-out. What I realized later on, though, is that no matter how much information I had, I couldn’t make a purely logical decision on this with just input.
None of us have the faculty to understand how successful or not it might be. So, bottom line is it came down to me believing that someone had to stand up, and if no one else would do it, that I should do it. And those 10 days were very bumpy—not a lot of sleep, immense amounts of pressure. People like Mitt Romney and others had been approached. They’d already taken a pass. So if I didn’t do it, literally no one was going to do it because time was short. All these ballot deadlines were passing. There was tremendous weight, and it was very bumpy, and it was scary.
Now I’d be banging coffee and horrible sandwiches, and I would just abuse my body. You’re a Mormon, so what did you do?
I lost a lot of weight because I didn’t eat much, which was good because that allowed me to fit into my skinny suits for the campaign.
So your mode of panic is actually just to do nothing—not eat.
I don’t consume anything. I paced around my place a lot. I went for walks. I talked to family. I prayed. I did these sorts of things.
Did you try to convince Romney?
I did not talk to him directly before making my decision in an effort to convince him to do it. But I had been talking to his staff for quite some time trying to convince them to convince him. Once I realized that somebody needed to do this and became convinced that fear of failure or humiliation wasn’t a good enough reason to not do it, then there was a certain peace that came with that.
And then all of a sudden you have launch. And that’s the moment maybe where you’re breaking the sound barrier. There’s no time to learn. And that was an interesting part of the experience, too. I didn’t train to give a stump speech or do a radio or television interview. I just all of a sudden had to do it.
What prism should government figures be using in deciding how to prosecute their duties?
The prism should be simply putting the interests of the American people before their own. Think back to the American Revolution where those who signed the Declaration of Independence were essentially signing their death warrants. So the virtue of what they were doing was the sacrifice.
Now, let’s think about our situation today: If you’re going to run for Congress or some role in the government, there’s a great deal of sacrifice involved, but not that kind of sacrifice. I think it’s easier for people who aren’t willing to really sacrifice a great deal for the country to end up in those roles. They may be thinking about themselves. There are plenty of members of Congress who I believe genuinely do at least start off and probably continue on some degree to care, to have an altruistic motivation for their work. But over time, that can be eroded by a lot of different things, and one refrain you hear often from members of Congress, which I think is emblematic or systematic of this problem, is that they will say, Well, I can’t do that. I can’t stand up for that issue or against that because if I do it, I’ll lose my seat. Some members of Congress have realized that that’s not a good thing to say. It sounds really bad.
Even in public, many still do, but I think many Americans hear that accept it when they shouldn’t. That is absolutely, fundamentally an incorrect way to think about your service, and that’s in part why we end up with other leaders—in this case President Trump, who I don’t think is good for the country because so many members said behind closed doors he isn’t good for the country, but they weren’t willing to stand up to him because they were afraid that they would lose their seats in Congress if they did. They were afraid that they would be criticized and attacked by him and by his legion of trolls online.
When did you start to feel like the system was facing not just normal stress but undue stress?
I think for a long time I felt that the two sides of the traditional political spectrum aren’t talking to each other enough. And it’s really incredible, after the election I’ve had. During the election, people who supported me were mostly constitutional conservatives. After the election, I’ve had a lot of people from the left come over, too, which is great because they’re seizing that common ground around the defense of our Constitution, our democracy, all of that. But I see people on the left attacking other people on the left because they’re following me or commenting on my comments or whatever. You have people on the right attacking me because I say a nice thing about somebody on the left. The level of animosity between Americans on the far right and Americans on the far left is really disappointing and counterproductive.
In the long-term, we need to be proactive about identifying and promoting into office on both sides of the traditional aisle people who are wise and honest leaders—people who are going to put the interests of the country first. In the short-term, though, the sad reality is that they’re going to make these decisions very politically, and they’re sort of proving that every day in most cases.
It is on us now. We need a new era of civic engagement in which we stand up for our democracy and stand up for the Constitution. My running mate and I have founded this new organization called Stand Up Republic, which is designed to help Americans stand up for their democracy, and for our Constitution, and for our fundamental ideals.
How far behind do you think most Americans are in even understanding the way democratic norms are supposed to function and the way in which they’re under assault?
I think we’re pretty far behind at this point. There was some recent research that came out of Harvard that said that only 30 percent of people born in the 1980s think that it’s important or essential to live in a democracy. For people who are born in the 1970s—my people—it’s only 40 percent of Americans. If you were born in the 1930s in America, more than 70 percent of them think it’s essential to live in a democracy. We’ve lived in relative security and relative sort of well-functioning democracy for the past several decades, and as a result of that, we’ve just started to take it for granted, and I believe we’ve lost sight of the true value of liberty.
Our founders thought we were going to have to relearn the value of liberty every generation or every so often. I think that time is upon American once again, and that is why it is so critical that we unite around existing common ground. That is the defense of our democracy, the defense of our Constitution, the defense of truth.
What are a couple books that could help people understand these questions?
One book that I really like is The Road to Serfdom by Frederick Von Hayek. It tends to talk more about the growth of a central government and how that ultimately leads to authoritarianism or fascism. He was writing around the time of the Nazis and warning against that.
I think The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is worth reading.
If you’ve got time.
In addition to books, there are people stepping forward now who have studied these things and experienced them, lived under authoritarian regimes, and they are commenting.
And in order for people to stay informed, they need that. And it’s useful to read the books that give you sort of the historic perspective, but it’s also helpful to have people who are experts in these things commenting on the daily events to help people think clearly about what’s happening at a time when our president is actively trying to undermine truth.
If we let truth be undermined, then there is no way to hold our government accountable, which is why authoritarians and autocrats attack truth. They don’t want to be held accountable, so they attack the press, they attack other sources of information and truth, and they attack the truth itself so they can’t even be held accountable by reality. It is just absolutely, fundamentally important that we stand up in the protection of truth. And there are a number of ways we can do it.
One way is for us to stand up and be extremely vocal when we see truth being undermined. And any of us can do that. Follow the lead of others who are doing it if you’re not quite sure. Get on Twitter. That’s where the commentary is easy to access. But be very, very vocal.
The other thing you can do is support the media. And the best way to do that is through subscriptions. Make sure that you find a couple of media outlets that you trust. If these platforms have subscription funding, then that enables them to do more higher quality reporting that doesn’t just depend on the number of clicks they get. Subscriptions are really important.