Evan McMullin and Erick Erickson, two young conservative heroes of last year’s #NeverTrump movement, have a disagreement over the proper approach to the Trump presidency.
Erickson argues in a piece on The Resurgent that Trump’s start, while rocky, has been better than expected. This lead to a conflict with McMullin who he voted for in November. McMullin established a group called, “Stand Up Republic:”
“Since the election, McMullin has seemed to tilt left as a reaction to President Trump and has been more of a Twitter concern troll against the President than a public policy leader. He has raised some valid concerns about President Trump’s praise of Russia and authoritarian tendencies. But it is hard to see how McMullin’s never ending criticisms and a willingness to coalition build with radical leftists like Shaun King against the President makes his new group an accountability group instead of just an opposition group. As of this morning, almost every one of Evan McMullin’s tweets is anti-Trump in some capacity.”
Erickson isn’t the only one to question what McMullin has been doing since the election. McMullin hasn’t moved to the left, but there’s no doubt that he’s had a different focus than Erickson.
Erickson has looked at Trump from an overall position and has seen some things he likes. As I’ve said, General Mattis is a great appointment for Defense Secretary. And Trump’s first week was marked with controversy, but there’s a quite a bit to make conservatives happy. The President repealed the Mexico City policy barring federal funds for abortion, he opened the door for the Keystone and Dakota pipelines to proceed after President Obama blocked these two projects that are key to our nation’s energy future, and made a fantastic Supreme Court appointment. The Erickson approach is, “Yes, he may have authoritarian tendencies but it has to be weighed against all these other factors.”
McMullin’s focus from day one has been Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. The chief he reason he ran was because of his experience and training in the CIA, experiencing authoritarian regimes, knowing how they rose to power and seeing Trump was playing out of that authoritarian playbook. He ran because of his fear of Trump’s corrupting influence on conservatism and the nation with authoritarianism, as well as, racial and religious intolerance. Since the election, Trump has taken some steps to distance himself from White Nationalists, but there’s been little about his behavior to alleviate anyone’s concern about Trump’s authoritarianism.
For McMullin, there’s no counterbalancing Trump’s authoritarian leanings. As McMullin said in a recent Tweet storm:
There is no issue more important for conservatives, and ALL Americans, than liberty and the defense of our constitutional republic. Without liberty, no right, no policy, no life, no dignity, no word, no truth, no future is secure. Authoritarians always placate their partisan disciples with coveted policies so they’ll turn a blind eye to liberty’s erosion. Trump and Steve Bannon are now feeding political catnip to conservatives for this very reason. And it’s working.
The question for skeptical conservatives is why they should believe either one of these perspectives.
The reason to follow Erickson’s lead is simple: No one in their right mind wants to believe Evan McMullin. Who relishes the possibility the President of the United States is operating to undermine our democratic institutions in favor of an unfriendly foreign power?
People are worn out after an emotionally charged election. Even those conservatives who didn’t back Trump are minded to give him a chance, hope for the best, and embrace whatever positive signs they see. They’re tired of being alienated from their friends and political allies. They want the President to succeed and are waiting to see what happens. They want to celebrate with others on the right as liberals go over-the-top in their opposition.
The reason to follow McMullin’s lead is if you’ve seen enough of Trump and believe he and some of his key staff, like Steve Bannon, are a clear and present danger to America’s liberty and the safety of the world. As the late Maya Angelou once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” McMullin sees action after action by the President that contradicts traditional democratic norms and violates America’s core values as McMullin understands them.
McMullin views the left-right divide differently than Erickson. To Erickson, this divide is the fundamental stuff of political life. To McMullin, the intensity of the disagreement is dangerous because it’s led citizens on both sides to accept encroachments by government and to back unfit leaders to protect themselves from “the other side.” A decade or so ago, if Trump had been nominated, Republicans would have stayed home on the basis of principle. This time, people decided they couldn’t afford the luxury of voting their conscious. Elections shouldn’t be that important and they shouldn’t be that big.
Frequently what should be debates of Constitutional principles are turned into partisan turf wars over whose ox is gored. In this situation, all a would-be despot needs to do is pick one side, become their leader, and stoke the flames of division. Taken together with the declining number of people who think it’s important to live in a democratic society, and America is ripe to lose its liberty.
McMullin’s efforts with Stand Up Republic are meant to restore respect on both the left and the right for those shared American values, principles, and norms that allow us to have a constitutional republic. We can’t survive if both sides continue to sacrifice core principles to gain control of the White House.
If Trump is as bad as McMullin fears, McMullin may be one of the few who has the credibility to lead against him. Many of the professional left were cheering on dangerous actions by Obama that have made Trump a threat. Many of the concerns raised by leftist leaders seem far more partisan than principled. Many of the rhetoric coming out of their mouths, they’d also be saying if Rubio won. Other protests represent so much anarchy that they remind many reluctant Trump supporters why they decided to back an authoritarian strongman.
Of course, it’s possible to generally agree with McMullin, but feel he occasionally hits President Trump in ways that offend those trying to give the President a chance. McMullin can seem brash compared to the cautious “wait and see” stance many conservatives are taking.
It is worth remembering McMullin has only been a public figure for six months and only became one because of the caution of well-established conservatives towards challenging Trump. Many thought about it and refused to run. Erickson expressed why more experienced #NeverTrump conservatives didn’t run in a post in June of last year in which he explained, while he’d support National Review Columnist David French if he ran, French faced long odds. Erickson suggested, it would require French raising $250 million to secure ballot access and another billion dollars to run a campaign. Besides, Erickson saw a huge benefit of French not running, “And the real upside to all of that is that the spectacle of an independent run to Donald Trump will have visibly failed, leaving Trump with no one to blame but himself for his loss in November.” *That worked.*
McMullin got in the race two months later and people in forty-three states were able to vote for him (though in all but eleven of these he was a write-in). His campaign budget was $1.6 million, less than 1/800th of Erickson’s estimate, and he got one half a percent of the vote. This was a strong result for what he had to work with, though nowhere close to victory.
However, McMullin’s finish is solid enough to make me wonder what would have happened if a conservative with national name recognition and money had launched a run in April or May. When the Access Hollywood tapes came out in October, if there’d been a credible, well-funded conservative alternative in the race, would it have changed the calculus for many voters as well as for conservative officeholders?
This highlights one simple truth. McMullin may occasionally be too bold, but far too often, Trump-skeptical conservatives have been too passive.