Evan McMullin

Constitutionalism vs. Trumpism

Air Date: February 11, 2017

Former presidential candidate Evan McMullin talks about his conservative manifesto.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Beneath the ominous profiles of cowardice that dominated the 2016 Presidential Campaign Season, there was a bright spot: Independent Presidential Candidate Evan McMullin of Utah, Patriotic Constitutionalist, Former CIA Officer, and entrepreneur. In the New York Times, McMullin pointedly clarified Trump’s threat to the Constitution, his lack of any basic knowledge of the founding creed, and moreover, his dictatorial tendencies, regularly questioning judicial independence, freedom of the press, equal protection under the law. Instead, Trump to date has channeled a path of political retribution, a need for absolute attention, provocations that distract the media and his opponents, what McMullin deems “The Authoritarian’s Playbook.” This is of course the poisonous injection of ignorance and authoritarianism in to the blood stream of American DNA and politics. But will be a death sentence? Evan joins me now to discuss this. Thank you for being here, sir.

MCMULLIN: Great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: I know that you go on, and your campaign continues. So you certainly are operating from the point of view that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

MCMULLIN: That- Donald Trump’s presidency doesn’t have to be a death sentence? No. I think- I think it does present a potential significant challenge to the country. I mean, we’ll of course see how President Trump actually governs. But I also think that if he governs in the way he says he would- or that he has said he would- which is in a way that I believe is akin to or uh- can be defined as authoritarianism, there will be an opportunity for Americans to maybe learn anew the value of liberty and the value of our democratic system and the constitution that supports it. These are things that perhaps that we as Americans need to learn form time and time again- time- from time to time- and be reminded of. And so there is a silver lining. And I see, you know, constitutional conservatives on the right, and I see people on the left who are learning these lessons again, and who are finding common ground with each other on defense of our democracy, on the basic cause of liberty and equality in America. And that’s also exciting. So there’s room, there’s, there’s opportunity for optimism here. But it’s in a broader context of potential great challenge.

HEFFNER: Why do you think we were- to use a word that you used in the New York Times op-ed you wrote in December, seemingly desensitized at a certain juncture in the campaign to what proved to be, time and time again, demonstrable ignorance combined with the “I-only” philosophy that he touted- Trump touted during his RNC nomination speech. It’s not as if we woke up, or the Republican primary electorate work up one morning and said we want to nominate someone who borders, in terms of his personality, along the lines of a dictator?

MCMULLIN: Yeah, I think a couple of things are at play here. First of all, in the United States for the last several decades our Constitution and our basic rights have basically been protected. And we’re not perfect- and anyone watching this shouldn’t think that that’s my message, because it isn’t. We’re not perfect, we’re not a perfect country and there are ways that we still need to ensure that the cause of liberty is expanded in our country and protected. But- but more or less our democracy, our constitution, our basic rights have been protected over the last several decades without great threat. Now- so- as a result of that, as a bi-product of that, I believe that we may have forgotten exactly how those rights are protected and what goes in to protecting those rights. Namely, the Constitution. Our democracy built upon that and the Democratic norms associated with that, that are also absolutely critical. And so when we see a- a new leader rising to power in the United States and they are exhibiting authoritarian tendencies, we don’t understand, perhaps, the danger of those, and the cost of those. Now we will see how President Trump governs. Now we may all be pleasantly surprised. And even today, I desperately hope that I am. But- but if we are not surprised, if he governs the way he said he was going to govern, uh- those who, uh, were not able to perhaps identify these authoritarian tendencies earlier on because they hadn’t seen them before- they- we will learn those lessons as a country. And then I think uh- we will be less desensitized to the … to Donald Trump’s activities. But during the campaign, for example, when people, I believe as I say a lot of people just hadn’t experienced this before, it’s easy to be desensitized to something that you don’t fully understand, or the ramifications of which you don’t fully understand. And we in America have been blessed with, with a democracy that’s been relatively healthy over the last several decades.

HEFFNER: Over the last several decades, but it was in the wake of a decade of dysfunction, obstinance and dysfunction, you could argue- what seemed to be eternal gridlock- that this came out of the woodwork. You were explicit about the authoritarian concern on the campaign trail. I think Secretary Clinton was not necessarily, um- perhaps there was a fear of over intellectualizing the problem. I don’t know. But at this point, we have Federalism, which is the blessing of separation of powers, and of course, Federal, State, Local, which will give rights to mayors, governors to challenge federal dictates but also to engage in their own kind of governance that might be opposing the federal direction.

MCMULLIN: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Beyond that, what is the toolkit that you espouse the citizens employ to ensure that it doesn’t go off the rails?

MCMULLIN: Well, there are a number of things. But before we get to that, I would like to comment on something you mentioned which is the issue of Federalism and the issue of gridlock. So you know- as a constitutional conservative, and that’s what I consider myself- we are concerned about the size of the federal government and the centralization of power in Washington. And the reason, part of the reason why we’ve been concerned about that for so long is that we knew that someone like, perhaps President Trump- could take power in the United States and leverage all of that authority in Washington, more specifically in the executive branch- to do things that they shouldn’t or that we wouldn’t- that would be uh- undesirable in America, or for American citizens. And so that’s an important thing right now. I believe that a lot of the gridlock we experience comes from the fact that we have so much power in Washington, which means that all the states and companies and individuals, voters, that we all fight over decisions in Washington because they’re so important because so much of the power has migrated to Washington over the last several decades for a variety of reasons, and more specifically to the executive branch. So with President Trump, we may see why that’s such a problem. But I would say that we definitely need to think very seriously about returning power to the states, about ensuring that legislative power is centered in Congress where Article 1 of the Constitution says very clearly it should be. These are very important things that we need to do in the long term. Now in the short term, what do Americans do to ensure that their basic rights and the Constitution are upheld? There are a number of things that need to be done. I think one of the first things we need to do is ensure that we are very aware. We need to be very, very attentive to what the administration is doing, to what our government is doing. We need to find various trustworthy sources of news that must be multiple, don’t just rely on one. You need to identify, we as Americans, all need to identify a number of news sources that we find credible. We need to understand what their biases may be. We need to uh- then make sure that we read and watch a lot. And then we need to be vocal when that’s necessary. We need to be extremely vocal. So when we see, perhaps, the President Trump do something that we think violates our most fundamental ideals and our constitution, we need to take to Twitter like he does, for example. Or we need to make phone calls to Representatives and Senators in Congress, which leads me to the next thing. You know, not only do we need to write and be vocal- write op-eds, be very vocal, this sort of thing. Tweet, post on Facebook, organize friends, send letters. We also need to engage much more frequently with our elected leaders in Congress because they’re not going to stand up to Donald Trump, most of them. Some, there are some, you know- some people who are showing some courage.

HEFFNER: Signs of life.

MCMULLIN: Yeah. Absolutely. You know? And I’m encouraged by that. And there will be more, I’m hopeful. Um- but they represent their people. And it is important for we, as their people, to make sure they understand that we expect them- whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, to stand up to Donald Trump when necessary. And that’s especially true for Republicans. So how do we do that? How do we ensure that happens? It means that- and it’s not, you know, perhaps, a sexy solution, but a phone call to your representative’s office registers with them. You know? If there are many phone calls, that especially registers. So we need to be doing that. I would make a challenge to the American people to once a week pick up the phone and call your Representative and your Senator’s office in Congress and tell them what you think about whatever’s happening. It’s very important especially if you feel strongly about something. But these are the kinds of things we need to do. And then the last thing I’ll mention here, although there are many things, the last thing I’ll mention is that we need to be proactive about identifying wise and honest leaders and then promoting them into office. Right now, we as the American people, we tend to be fairly passive in this regard. The Republicans and the Democrats present people to us- or individuals decide whether they’re going to run or not- that’s all fine. Uh- but we don’t go and find people who we think are prepared to lead us, and who offer the kind of leadership that will take us forward, not backward. And who will unify us and who will put the interests of the country and our interests first. That’s what we need to do. We need to be more proactive. We need to find those people among this, among us, and promote them in to office.

HEFFNER: When your Republican contemporaries- I know you ran as an Independent, but you were involved in the Republican Caucus from a policy perspective, but when your Republican counterparts- like Ben Sasse of Nebraska or Jeff Flake of Arizona were appealing to the intelligence of the country, they seemed to be denied the voice. And when you say signs of life, John McCain, who may be immortal, and we’ll see how the Trump presidency tests his mortality but I think he was so silent during the transition because he’s got a lot to say. And he’s waiting to say it. You were the lone voice during the campaign and now continue to be among a very small minority of outspoken Republicans. So given that the public perception may be that Sasse and Flake and some of the others were ultimately rejected in their anti-Trump or never-Trump view, how do you show them that if they do the things you just prescribed they can be as momentous and garner as much momentum as a Trump tweet? Because I think your point is well taken. That if you tweet with that velocity and build yourself a platform, there are going to be results at the end of the day. And the question is, in 140 characters, how do you preserve that appeal to intelligence?

MCMULLIN: Well, I would say that it can’t just all be about the 140 characters. There’s so much that needs to be done. I like uh, Senator Booker, Cory Booker’s use of videos. He, you know, does selfie videos or videos that are almost like selfie videos where he delivers a very effective message. And I think the Senators who you mentioned, these are the ones who understand the point that you’re making. They’ve got other considerations that, at times, meant they could speak out or not- and of course I encouraged them to speak out as much as possible. Those you mentioned are the ones who did speak out. There are plenty of others who did not, uh, who, who did not speak out at all. And that’s what my concern is. I think that Senator Sasse and Senator McCain and Senator Graham, uh- and Senator Lee as well and others- there are others who have shown leadership. But my concern is that- others who haven’t and what we as Americans do about that. And the way we handle that is to be very, very loud in engaging with those Senators and Representatives, so that they know. So there’s political pressure and political support are two sides of the same coin, right? So we’ve got to give pressure and support to members of Congress to stand up to Trump when necessary. And there will be times when Trump does things that conservatives want to see and the liberals don’t want to see, and conservatives can support those things. There’s no problem with that. But when it comes to the defense of our country- the defense of the integrity of our Constitution, the integrity of our democratic process- uh- the protection of our basic rights and equality in America- uh- we need our representatives in Congress to do more. That’s clear. But it’s on us. It is on us. Until we can put forth people with more courage- people who will not put their reelection before the interests of the people. We’ve got to especially be very loud to motivate them to be vocal. Now what kind of message resonates? Um sure- to some audiences an intellectual message about uh- the value of democracy and of the dangers of authoritarianism- that’s compelling. But we’ve got to- to make it much more, um- relatable to more people. And I’m speaking to myself in saying that as well. And we also need to go to Trump voters, and they’re not a monolith, right? There are many different reasons people voted for Trump. But to his most ardent supporters, we need to go to them and we need to hear them. And I know that my saying that is controversial. When I say that, I get some- some negative feedback sometimes. That those people are, you know, we can’t, you know reconcile with those people. They’re irreconcilable. I disagree with that. And I think we can never give up on our fellow Americans. They do have just, they do have very justified complaints in their- and many of them are going through very serious struggles. We need to hear them and understand the truth that can come from that about part of our country and the challenges people are facing, and then we need to offer them better policy solutions that are more positive rather than the destructive policy, uh, proposals- in many cases that I think Donald Trump has offered that I don’t think will end up ultimately helping people through some of these- these struggles. So that’s what we need to do.

HEFFNER: I was thinking about you during the course of the campaign and its aftermath with the refrain of authoritarianism because it would be, in a debate moment when it could have been Vice President Biden who more compellingly said in response to what Trump has said about we don’t have a country any more, vis a vis our borders, but we’re not going to have a democracy any more if you’re President of the United States. And I don’t think that struck a chord. And Clinton did not say that, but, and it might have been Biden who was the more effective messenger or even Sanders, but- when it comes to these tweets that are engaging in market manipulation, when Trump is doing what to Milton Friedman or William F. Buckley would be a sin of the highest order, and that is calling out companies and engaging in a tit for tat around jobs.

MCMULLIN: You make important points. And I would say that the kind of capitalist economy that I believe should exist hasn’t been produced or uh- promoted by Republicans over the last several decades. Instead, we’ve seen too much crony capitalism. We’ve seen big businesses thrive while small and medium sized enterprises struggle under, uh, rules and regulations that major corporations and major players in industries are able to craft and promote through the government, but that the smaller players have no voice in. So what we need to do is make sure that we are promoting a truly free economy, an open economy- in which everybody’s on equal playing field. You know, when I was serving in Congress as the chief policy director for the House Republicans, you know- there were times when I saw this happening. When I saw major players in an industry pushing some legislation that would essentially regulate that industry. Which at first was very confusing to me. Why would a- why would major players in an industry be asking for regulation of their industry? I mean, in some cases it can be- you now- the purpose of that can be to clear up, to clear up regulatory uncertainty, which is sometimes even worse than overregulation, but in other cases, it’s because some of these players know that these larger players, larger corporations, they can kill competition, smaller competition, through these regulations because they can handle the regulations but the smaller players can’t. So that’s what’s been happening. So we need an open economy. That’s something that, that Republicans have not been very good with over the past several years. They’ve moved too much in to the- the realm of crony capitalism. That needs to change. But I don’t believe that some of Trump’s proposals…I think some of his rhetoric and plans on trade are dangerous- they’ll do more harm than good. He’s ignoring the, the effect of automation on some of the same manufacturing jobs that he complains about. Uh, Brookings did a study recently that showed that 85 percent of the manufacturing jobs that we’ve lost in recent years have come from, have come as a result of automation, not trade. So, you know, there are things we need to do. We need to make sure also that we have a safety net for, for Americans. But it should be a safety net that helps them out of poverty, not merely helps them to survive poverty. Even Milton Friedman said that it is- uh- appropriate in a vibrant, a dynamic, open economy, for their to be a social safety net.

HEFFNER: How do you branch out from the contemporary Republican Party to build your own platform anew?

MCMULLIN: Well, it’s a very good question and one that my team and Mindy Finn, my running mate and I from the election are, are trying to answer. A lot of it will depend upon how President Trump governs. Now his advisors have informed Congress, for example, that, that the Republican Party is no longer the conservative party. They’ve informed Congress that the party is no longer the party of Reagan, for example, it’s the party of Trump. And one example of that from a policy perspective would be Trump’s plan to do a one trillion dollar uh, infrastructure program, uh- taking on more debt to fund it- which is something that is not a conservative solution to that particular challenge. So- so there are- you know- conservatives in this context, you know, we’re going to have to see how Trump governs. Does he govern in Conservative ways? Does he try to limit the size of government? Does he promote open,you know, an open economy? You pointed out some examples of things he did, even as President-Elect, that suggest otherwise. But we’ll see how he governs. But that will dictate what’s required going forward. I think there certainly is a need in this country for a new conservative movement, certainly under Trump’s presidency, if he governs even 50 percent the way he said he was going to govern. You know, we are going to need conservatives- a new conservative movement that will reflect our ideas about limited government, open economies, this sort of thing. Uh- but also there’s, there’s something else that we’re observing. That my team and I are observing in the country. And that is that- Republicans or Conservatives and Progressives or Liberals, they’re finding common ground around some very fundamental American ideals, which are, you know, liberty and equality and the protection of our democracy and constitution. And I think that is something, depending on, again, how President Trump governs- that is something that may be uh, of equal importance or greater importance to the country. So you have a variety of things that are happening. You have a need for a new conservative movement. I think you probably need a new movement on the left, too. Um- but I also think that there is- there is a need for an American movement that will be committed to defending the Constitution, liberty and equality, our democracy, and I think, it’s happening organically. I see it happening. And so my team and I, we’re trying to figure out, uh- what our role will be in that context with these multiple needs that we see existing.

HEFFNER: Last question in the couple of minutes we have left.

MCMULLIN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I admire you for what you’re doing. I think you were a voice of sanity in a bitterly fought campaign that lent itself to the polar ends of the spectrum. If you were to do it again, right, what would have to be accomplished in order for an Independent candidate who does not have Donald Trump or Ross Perot’s wealth? What did you learn from the experience that would help you or your successor in this effort be a third party candidate in 2020?

MCMULLIN: Well, I would say first of all that I ran as an Independent out of expediency, not out of uh you know, convenience. And I think that’s clear to most observers.

HEFFNER: Sure.

MCMULLIN: But there was a Republican nominee already, I was a conservative, I felt that the American people needed a better choice- an Independent candidacy was the way to do it. Was the only way to do it. Uh, but I, you know, I think that, I did learn what I, sort of what I knew before, but learned firsthand what a challenge it is to run as an Independent candidate. Uh- you have ballot access considerations, debate stage opportunities or lack thereof. I mean it’s just a whole host of challenges. So I think more broad- the more important point is that um- in this country now, where we have- where we’re so divided and there’s such gridlock, I do believe, as a conservative, we need more voices, not fewer voices. Uh- we need more parties to emerge and we need to open up the process. And so I hope that will happen. And frankly, I mean- this is a topic, perhaps, for another discussion, but I do believe that both the Republican party and the Democratic party are ripe for disruption in the same way that Uber disrupted the traditional taxi cab industry. Both of these parties are, are old, they have legacy commitments, legacy ideas. They are backward looking. You could see it in the campaigns. I thought in both campaigns, on the Democratic side, it’s still a commitment to a large, centralized government that just can’t work- it’s just a bureaucratic nightmare that deprives people of liberties and is dysfunctional, and on the right side, obviously, with Donald Trump, you see an embracing of bigotry and misogyny among parts of the right. Not all of the right- I want to make that clear, but parts of the right that is also backward looking. So I believe that just like any company, you know- companies have life cycles. They start out fresh and hungry and they may, they take risks, and they grow, and they meet the needs of the, the market, and then they, they grow to a size where they don’t want to take as many risks because they perceive that they have more to defend than to gain. And so as a result of that they stop serving their customers well and they end up being disrupted. Now, you know, the Republican party was once a third party. It broke off from the Whig party, as many people know, because the Whig party was flirting with slavery again, and Republicans didn’t want to do that. They broke off, and it soon became the party of Lincoln. He joined the party a couple of years after it was founded, and now we have the Republican party. But parties don’t exist forever in this country, and I think we may be nearing a point where uh, where the timing is right, over the next decade or two,or sooner, for some major disruption in this regard.

HEFFNER: You have to start this in 2000- this had to be started in 2014, right? People, I think, undersell and underestimate the degree to which Trump benefited from free being as being a celebrity and if you’re gonna orchestrate an earnest effort at what you did, start- you got to start in 2018. You know, start even before the midterms. But I really appreciate, Evan, your commitment to democracy, and preserving our constitution. Thank you for being with me today.

MCMULLIN: Yeah- thank you very much. My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion in to the world ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.