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Editors' Picks Interviews National The Politic Blog

An Interview with Evan McMullin, Former Independent Presidential Candidate

Evan McMullin is the co-founder of Stand Up Republic, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on defending democratic ideals, and a vocal critic of the Trump administration. He formerly worked as a CIA official for almost a decade, and ran as an independent candidate for the 2016 presidential election.


The Politic: My first question is about your work at the CIA. I know you’ve done extensive work there, especially in counter-terrorism and intelligence operations. I was wondering how your work with the CIA affected your stance as a politician?

Evan McMullin: I think it has made me put the interest of the country before partisan interests more so than other people operating in the political space normally do.

For me, as a young CIA officer I was taught by the agency that no matter who was in the White House, no matter what the party of a member of Congress, for example, was, that I was to serve senior policy makers by obtaining intelligence for them, and therefore helping them make wise decisions in the country’s interest. That was a very serious part of our ethos as Central Intelligence Agency officers—to avoid partisanship in our work.

And that still informs my approach to challenges our country faces. I look at national security challenges, or challenges related to our economy, or other challenges our country faces as challenges that we’ve got to overcome together, rather than as partisan ones. I think that’s why

I’m comfortable as an independent now, because it allows me to focus more on solutions rather than what’s good for one party or the other.

But yes, it does ultimately stem from the ethos of the Central Intelligence Agency, in terms of the approach of the agency and its officers to service to the country. It’s not to be a partisan effort, it’s to be a patriotic effort, first. Certainly, parties are important, for a number of reasons. They also create some challenges, which we’re experiencing now; but, the country always has to come first. We must put our country above politics and above partisan interests.

I think that’s really interesting, because I think we all see the hyper-partisanship, especially in government recently. Could you talk a bit more about this growing independent movement and how we avoid the type of screaming match politics seems to have devolved into?

Yeah, well, we do have a very serious problem with extreme rote partisanship. But we could spend all day talking about how that happened.

I’ll mention a few things. I think we know the modern media landscape is one that helps divide us. Candidly, I think you know there are more media outlets now than there were ten, twenty years ago. And I think that’s, in general, a positive thing. But it also tends to segment us into different audiences. And sometimes, those media platforms, digital or otherwise, benefit from keeping us locked into one particular segment—meaning, we get caught into an information bubble or a feedback loop in which we only hear news and information that we already agree with, nothing that challenges our understanding of issues or broadens our understandings of the issues beyond what they already are. So that’s a problem. There are also many other issues that we could get into.

But I will say that the answer, I think, lies in part with our leadership. We’ve got to have leaders who will seek to unite as opposed to capitalize on the divisions that exist across the country. In an environment like we have in the United States, where wages have been fairly stagnant for the past 20 years after long periods of growth in the country, there’s a tendency to blame each other and blame foreigners and people who don’t look, believe in, and act like us. That’s the problem.

But that’s just not a constructive approach. And it won’t help us resolve our challenges and help us move forward as a country. More so, I would say that it leaves us vulnerable, as we saw in 2016 and afterwards, to foreign efforts to divide us further and to push us to extremes both on the right and the left. That’s the approach that the Vladimir Putin takes in dealing with the United States, in that he promotes propaganda through social media and otherwise that seeks to do just that: divide us and push us to further extremes.

And when that happens, we start to see each other as the enemy rather than seeing each other as fellow citizens, as part of this same country, and as a necessary part of any solution to the challenges we face. So, it really is a national security issue, this extreme rote partisanship, because it leaves us vulnerable to foreign adversaries who want to exacerbate it.

I think it’s important to note that our adversaries did not create the divisions we face in this country today. That’s our responsibility. We are responsible for that. Of course, there are a variety of factors, some of which I’ve mentioned here, that sort of push us toward these divisions, but they are our responsibility. Foreign adversaries will seek to capitalize on those dynamics, but ultimately, we are responsible for them, and we’re responsible for protecting our own country from them.

But I think if you ask, “Well what do we do about it?”…We’ve got to have leaders who will not give in to the temptation to exacerbate and then capitalize on those divisions for political purposes. The easiest path in the book for a politician looking to inspire a lot of public support quickly, at least among a certain segment, is to weaponize their deepest fears and prejudices against another part of the population. And we saw Donald Trump do that in 2016, and since, we’ve seen other leaders do that—where they designate other Americans as something other than real Americans. This is the populist playbook: to exacerbate those divisions, to inspire additional hatred and fear, and then to harness that for political advantage.

We need leaders who will resist the temptation to do that and will, say, instead be promoting a unifying message and seeking to find common ground between various segments of the U.S. population. To do it even when it’s politically risky, even when it means potentially losing public support. And in the case of members of Congress, for example, it may mean you lose your seat in Congress. But we’d rather have leaders who are willing to take that risk and to speak truth about the challenges we face and to find common ground so that we can move forward practical solutions to challenges we face, whether economic or security-related or otherwise.

Yeah, most definitely. I actually wanted to shift back to that 2016 presidential campaign and some of those leaders that you previously mentioned. So, I take that your 2016 presidential campaign was largely inspired by frustrations with both of the main party nominees. Could you speak a bit more about the goals of that campaign and this changing conservatism that we see in America?

The goals of our campaign were to first and foremost stand for basic American principles that we thought weren’t being effectively represented by the Republican nominee. Those were, principally, the equality and the liberty of all. And then policies that are based upon those fundamental ideals of our country. Those are the founding ideals of our country. And we thought it was important to stand for those. Ideas and ideals in countries can fade or evaporate if they don’t have advocates, and we were concerned. Mindy Finn, my running mate, and I were concerned that if no one from the right stood for these principles during the campaign that they would evaporate from the consciousness of the “American political right”. Indeed, you are correct. You see some of these ideas losing favorability within the Republican Party leadership. So, this is exactly what we were concerned about, and that was the first reason why we decided to run as we did.

We knew our electoral chances were very slim. We thought there was a chance that we could prevail, but an extremely slim one. But we knew that this struggle would continue even after the election. Fighting for these fundamental ideals, fighting to defend our democracy from foreign interference. We knew that that was going to be a long fight, that we needed to start the effort during the campaign, not afterwards. We needed to take a stand when it was more difficult, and as early as possible in order to continue to fight for those things effectively after the campaign. So that’s what we did. You know, we had expected that now-President Trump would not prevail and that our effort would then, after the election, be one to move the Republican Party in a better direction than the one Trump had taken it toward in the campaign.

But, of course, he did win. And that has changed the nature of our efforts. I believe it has made them even more critical. Namely, instead of fighting for the Republican Party exactly, we’re first and foremost fighting to protect our democracy. And that has to come first: it has to come before any policy agenda that we would think of more traditionally. Although, I always point out that the policy agenda that our founders had was one of independence, one of liberty, and one of equality. Now, of course, we haven’t been perfect in our implementation of those ideals through our history, but that was the vision and that was the path on which we as a country started out.

And now those things are under threat. So we’re fighting for those basic things. You know, I’ve always considered conservatism to be the political philosophy that sought to conserve liberty and equality in America and conserve policies that were based upon those ideals. But obviously, there is a new brand of conservatism that had existed for some time within the Republican Party. But in the past, it has been more marginal than it is now, certainly with President Trump now capitalizing on it and making it stronger. And that is this idea of blood and soil, or this idea that America is not about its ideals, but rather it is about the religious and ethnic identity of the majority of the country. And that is what some conservatives today now believe, now seek to conserve, and I think that reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what this country is about and what conservatism should be about. Conservatism, surely, if nothing else: at its most basic level, conservatism must mean preserving the foundational ideals upon which this country was founded. There can be no other definition of conservatism that doesn’t start there, and one that doesn’t, I think, is unhealthy and even dangerous for the country.

Absolutely. Some of those democratic ideals you mentioned—liberty, freedom, equality—I’d like to talk a bit more about those, and your stance on the Trump administration, especially as it relates to those democratic ideals. From the American public’s perspective, just how scared should we be? Is this administration particularly unusual as far as protecting these ideals?

I think we should be extremely concerned. I think Trump is a dangerous leader, and I’ve pulled no punches on that point. For the past nearly three years [I’ve thought] he represents a challenge to our liberty in this country. I believe that he accepted and encouraged and participated in a foreign adversary’s effort to deny our ability, uninhibited, to choose our own leaders. And that’s what Russia did, and it is very dangerous, because if we’re to allow a foreign power like Russia to play such a significant role in our elections, that means we lose some of the power that is ours, and only ours, to choose our leaders and hold them accountable and, therefore, to be free. And so I think we should be very concerned.

But I will also say that we benefit from some very strong institutions. We’ve seen courts stand up to Trump, we’ve seen, I think, a renaissance in the independent press in the United States. While not perfect, I believe that they’ve done a good job reporting on some of the challenges we face related to the health of our democracy, the foreign threat to it, and the threat from the president. But, you know, we can’t be complacent even though we see many of our institutions standing up fairly well, because they can only take so much pressure before they start to bend too.

And you see Congress, for example, is an example of an institution that has not done so well in this presidency. It has failed largely to perform its constitutional duty of acting as a check and a balance on the executive. Mainly because Congress is entirely under the control of Trump’s allies within the Republican Party. And because of that these members of Congress have put the interests of their party and of their party’s president, our president and the president of the United States, ahead of their constitutional duties. And that’s extremely dangerous. So we see that in some cases our institutions are standing up quite well. In other cases they haven’t, namely in the case of Congress.

But, you know, the good news is that we have a regular check on Congress, which in the nearest case will be the midterm elections, where we can make changes, where we can hold members of Congress accountable for their performance or failure to perform their constitutional duties. I think it’s absolutely critical in 2018 that we elect leaders who will put those duties first ahead of their party interests, ahead of their personal interests. That will provide a check on the executive, on the president, and hold him and anyone else accountable for doing anything that would violate the law or Constitution and ultimately our basic freedoms in this country.

Looking to a post-election landscape, I was wondering how your organization, Stand Up Republic, works to specifically protect these norms from the administration’s disruption?

Well, we’re a nonpartisan organization, and we have supporters on the right and on the left and in the center, some of them are Democrats, some are Republicans, some are independents. And that’s exactly what we think needs to happen in order to protect our democracy. We cannot allow these issues to become partisan issues. We cannot allow whether we should protect our country from foreign interference, for example, to be a partisan issue. We can’t allow whether we should have free and fair elections to be a partisan issue, whether, you know, people who are constitutionally eligible to vote, whether they should have the ability, a reasonable ability to do that: that can’t be a partisan issue. These basic tenets and practices of our self-rule cannot be partisan.

And if they are, then we run the risk of losing them, because if they become partisan issues and one party becomes more powerful than the other, then these basic rights can be dismantled in the name of political power. And if we’re not all in agreement that these are non-negotiable, nonpartisan practices and rights that are necessary for the defense of liberty and equality in America, then they will truly be in jeopardy. And I think that’s where we are now.

After having heard your stance on politics today, what do you see for your political future?

I think right now, Mindy and I are very focused on building a nonpartisan political movement or identity centered around the defense of our democracy. This is what’s most important for us, to meet the challenges of the day. And so, we’re building a grassroots organization across the country. We already we started that during our campaign. But since then, we are expanding that and building the organization. We’re also building our reach, both our digital and traditional media reach, so that we can further communicate to the American people on these important issues. All with an end towards holding members of Congress accountable for doing their jobs—as I explained earlier, their constitutional duties in acting as a check on the executive and on the president. So, we use our digital and traditional media reach along with our grassroots network for the advocacy purposes. We were very active early in the Trump presidency pushing for Russia investigations, and then for sanctions. And we’ve been active on other issues that we think are foundational to protect self-rule in America, and so we continue to do that.

That’s what we’re focused on for now in 2018, we’re looking at candidates on the right, the left, and in the middle, and we’re supporting in one way or another candidates who are first committed to our foundational American ideals and to protecting our democracy, and then also opposing members of Congress who are not performing well in that regard.

I think one such member of Congress who comes to mind is Devin Nunes from California, who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He’s somebody who has politicized law enforcement and undermined the rule of law, promoting a variety of conspiracy theories and misleading information to the American people. And we just can’t have that, especially not by someone who leads such an important committee in the House of Representatives. So, he’s somebody who we’re opposing. We look at other members like Dana Rohrabacher, somebody who is strangely aligned with Vladimir Putin, as somebody who should not be in Congress, or Steve King in Iowa, who is a white nationalist and promotes xenophobic ideas to the country. These are people who have not embraced our foundational ideals as a country, and they should not serve in Congress, and they should be held accountable by their constituents. And we hope that that will happen. Either they won’t return to Congress, or if they do they’ll understand that they’ve got to change their approach.

But that’s what we’re doing in 2018. Beyond that we will, you know, continue to grow our grassroots network and our digital and traditional media reach. We will likely pursue office again, but when that will happen is unclear. But we think in the near and immediate terms that it’s important that there be a national movement, a new political identity that is nonpartisan, that is formed around the basis of the fundamental values of our democracy. And then we’ll grow from there.

I see great opportunity in the future or for something new, politically, in this country. You know, there are an increasing number of Americans who identify as independents, and among those independents a growing number of them feel less inclined to align with either party. We believe that there’s an opportunity for leadership, for organization. Our vision is, as I said before, is [creating] a new political identity that’s committed first to our democracy. But down the road, I think that we’re committed to finding practical fact-based solutions to our country’s challenges that unite as opposed to divide the country, and we look forward toward security and prosperity for all Americans.

Sounds like a fantastic plan. To wrap up our interviews we like to ask a couple fun rapid fire questions. Is that alright?

Sounds good.

Where do you like to get your news?

From a variety of sources. I read newspapers every day but also check the digital platforms as well, and, of course, Twitter. There’s so much news these days that you can’t just rely on one source, and that would be my recommendation for everyone, to have many sources across the political spectrum for news. I certainly do, and it’s a lot of work keeping up with all of it these days, but it must be done.

What place would you most like to visit?

The list is long actually. I would love to visit Vietnam. I would love to get back to Patagonia for some skiing or hiking. I would love to get to Peru and to the Galápagos Islands. Hawaii is always a favorite of mine. I’d love to go trekking sometime in Nepal. There are many places, one of my favorites is the Maldives, I would like to get back to the Maldives sometime soon, so, many, many places.

If you weren’t in your current job what would you be doing?

I think I’d probably be working in some capacity in Silicon Valley. I spent a couple of years working in finance in San Francisco and really have an appreciation for the innovation that happens there and all the big ideas and exciting new companies there. And I think if I weren’t leading Stand Up Republic with Mindy Finn I would probably be there, or in Utah ultimately working [with] technology in some way.

Cool. Which living person do you most admire?

I would have to pick two, actually. There are a lot of people who I have a lot of respect and admiration for, certainly in history and even until today. But you know, I have a lot of respect, and with age, an increasing amount of respect, for both of my parents. I mean they’re both people who have faced adversity in their lives but have met challenges even from a very young age and overcame them, and did so as parents and as leaders of our family. And they taught me and my siblings that we could accomplish just about anything if we set our minds to it, and that we should work very, very hard, and that we should serve others. And those are three very, very important lessons that informed my aspirations since my childhood.

I remember hearing stories of my parents starting to work at a very young age, you know, working through their childhood, and I’m not an advocate for child labor. [Laughs.] But they are people who’ve worked hard their entire lives. And there were times in our family where we experienced financial difficulties, and, you know, they did everything they could to serve our family. I remember my mom one time started a small business out of our garage, and my dad, who is a computer scientist, got a job delivering papers to supplement the family’s income, because at the time when they were young—they were in their 20s, with four kids, and mortgage rates were sky-high—and things were difficult for our family, financially.

But, they made sacrifices and worked extremely hard to meet their responsibilities, and I’ll forever be grateful for the sacrifices they made, but also, really, for instilling in us this notion of service and the notion of hard work. I think that although it wasn’t always easy to be taught this lesson, because it involved a lot of hard work growing up, now I’m grateful to my parents for [it].

What keeps you up at night?

What keeps me up at night? What keeps me up at night is unnecessary division in our country. I think that there’s far more common ground between different political factions, ethnic and religious groups, and people of different socioeconomic levels than most of us realize. And it pains me, sincerely pains me, that oftentimes it seems that we believe as Americans that we are more divided than I actually think we are, even on some of the most challenging issues that we have. I think there is more common ground than some of the partisan populist leaders would have us believe.

You know, we’ve seen that we see that with, for example, gun control. That debate is going on now. That’s been an area of policy that has been a very controversial one for a long time. But in this debate, most recently especially, we’ve seen evidence that actually there is overwhelming support for certain policy changes. And I think that surprised a lot of people. But the same is true for other issues, whether that be immigration or health care or other even thornier issues. I believe that there is far more common ground than partisan leaders will allow us to believe there is. And that’s why I think it’s just so absolutely critical that we first identify the most fundamental common ground of our commitment to our democracy and equality and liberty in America, and then build from there. But that’s our mission and purpose in life now at Stand Up Republic and it does keep me up at night, figuratively and literally, these perceived divisions.

What is your advice for college students?

My advice for college students is going to be similar to the advice that my parents gave me, as unoriginal as that is. [Laughs.] But look, I really believe in following your passion. There’s so much advantage in doing what you love. Of course, perhaps you know there are exceptions. Maybe in ways that means practically shapes how we pursue our passions. But I do believe that it’s important for college students to do what they love and to work very hard at it.

But the second thing I would say is I would just advocate for the importance of service. The reasons why are some of the reasons why service so important. Usually when you serve or when there are opportunities to serve it’s because the system in some way—you know, the economy or government or civic organizations that already exist—usually when there’s an opportunity to serve it’s because some system has failed and because there’s a real challenge as a result, and there is a need then for people to step forward and to contribute to a solution without, for example, being paid or without being paid very much.

So, what happens when you do that is you step into a situation where there usually aren’t enough people acting and helping, and so even a young person can benefit from having far more responsibility, in a service capacity, than they would otherwise. And because of that additional responsibility there is more opportunity to grow, and there is opportunity to develop expertise in an area where other people don’t, or haven’t, because there aren’t enough people clearly engaged on that issue; otherwise, it would not be an issue. And with that new expertise people can parlay that into bigger opportunities to serve or work in related or adjacent capacities.

So serve, even if you’re serving only for selfish reasons. There are many that make service opportunities some of the best you can find. And you have the opportunity to make a difference on a critical issue but also to grow tremendously, far beyond what you may otherwise do in a more traditional career setting. But, you know, it’s also true that you don’t need to serve as a career. One can pursue employment, for example, in the private sector, in business, and that has its own value to society that’s critical. But in addition to that there are all kinds of service opportunities and serious needs across the country and across the globe. I would just encourage students to serve in whatever capacity they feel most inspired. But I believe that they’ll be richly rewarded for it, and our country will be better off the more people who serve according to their talents and their interests and passions, and I think it’s so important.

And finally, who do you follow on Twitter?

I follow thousands of people on Twitter, so it would be hard for me to identify all of them in this interview. [Laughs.] But I will say that I enjoy following people on Twitter who are standing up for the foundational principles that this country was founded upon so many years ago. Those are the ones who have made sacrifices, who speak truth even if it’s unpopular regardless of what party they come from or where they fall on the political spectrum. But you know, Twitter is an important part of our town square these days, our digital town square, and those who use it to do good and to promote the interests of the country over their own personal interests or the interests of their political tribe are those who I most appreciate, whether on Twitter or otherwise.