Evan McMullin might just win Utah on Nov. 8 and become the first independent candidate in close to half a century to be awarded electoral votes. But he wants you to know that his crusade against Donald Trump has evolved into something much more ambitious and far-reaching than a quixotic bid to pick off a single state in the 2016 general election. McMullin is working toward nothing less than building a whole new center-right party.
What would this new party stand for? To judge by statements from McMullin and his top aides, it would favor tax and spending cuts, as well as free trade agreements, aimed at increasing economic growth; eagerly use American military might to uphold order around the globe; and affirm social conservatism, including stringent opposition to abortion rights. And it would make a point of welcoming (in McMullin's own words) "Muslims, immigrants, and 'people who don't look like me.'"
Those with even a passing familiarity with the past four decades of American political history will recognize immediately that this "new" center-right party bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain old center-right party — namely, the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan. And George W. Bush. And Mitt Romney. And Jeb Bush. And Marco Rubio. And Paul Ryan.
But not the Republican Party of Donald Trump.
Indeed, as soon as Trump began winning GOP primaries over the expressed wishes of party elites and its most powerful donors, political analysts began talking about the imminent break-up of the GOP. But the truth is that the real Republican crack-up won't begin until after the election. Right now, the longing to defeat Hillary Clinton, or at least minimize the down-ballot damage to the party from Trump's decisive defeat, is keeping a lid on things, with public fighting mostly limited to battles within the right-wing media. But recriminations, back-stabbing, and ruthless jockeying for post-Trump positions in the party are certain to break out with a vengeance as soon as the election is behind us. And as the McMullin campaign is showing in Utah, the result is likely to be a party torn into pieces.
Some important segments of the party are quite happy with the way things were before Trump burst on the scene — with the GOP's post-Reagan optimism, idealism, and conservative moralism; with the presumption that the country benefits when using military force to impose order around the globe; with the often unstated assumption that all Americans of every economic and cultural echelon automatically thrive when the nation's entrepreneurial class is given everything on its wish list (massive tax cuts along with open borders and markets). Plenty of people are perfectly content with this governing vision, including most conservative pundits, much of the party's donor class, many senior officials and officeholders, most Mormons (including McMullin and his most passionate Utah supporters), many conservative Catholics, and some evangelical Protestants.
Yet many others appear to be fully on board with Trump's revamped, virulently and vulgarly populist vision of the party. This presumably includes a good chunk of the 40-something percent of Republicans who voted for Trump in the primaries; some prominent donors; many fans of Fox News, right-wing talk radio, Breitbart, and other alt-right media outlets; lots of newly emboldened white supremacists, anti-Semites, and other racists; and sundry pessimists who've grown more broadly disenchanted with the status quo.
The Federalist's Ben Domenech does a nice job of summarizing the quasi-apocalyptic outlook of this last group:
Ask yourself why so many of Trump's voters, even the middle-class ones, are willing to listen when [Trump] says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America's capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age. [The Federalist]
"American society is in collapse" is a far more radical and destabilizing (and far less traditionally conservative) message than the one favored by the more sanguine, Reaganite faction of the party.
If these were merely two factions fighting for control within the GOP, the conflict would be rancorous enough. But the situation is actually more dire than this because the more radical Trumpist faction, the one that's eager to break sharply from the Republican Party's past, already controls the party. (And has elaborate plans to maintain control.)
Plenty of people in the less radical, Reaganite faction deny this. They point to Trump's own failure to win a majority of the votes in the primaries, or Paul Ryan's lopsided primary victory over a Trumpist challenger, or the disgust that many Republican politicians privately express about their party's nominee.
But if this election cycle has taught us anything, it is that Republican politicians respond to the preferences of their constituents — and that enough of their constituents strongly support Trump that denouncing him comes at a considerable electoral cost, even in response to behavior and policy stances that would have been fatal for any Republican just a few short years ago. That's why so few Republicans have broken from Trump, and why many of those who speak critically about him do so privately and off the record, and why even a fair number of the relatively few politicians who've made a point of unendorsing him publicly have eventually turned around and reversed themselves.
It's also why McMullin talks in terms, not of taking back the party, but of starting over, outside the GOP — because he recognizes just how powerful and pervasive Trump's influence over the party has been. A large, restive, angry faction that 18 months ago might have settled for one of the McMullin-style candidates in this election cycle has now seen that something else is possible, and they're unlikely to accept a return to the old ways.
Shortly after Nov. 8, every Republican in Washington is going to face a choice: Will I actively join the new, Trumpist order? Merely continue to go along passively with its ascendance in order to keep my job and its perks? Fight to restore the status quo ante (which will mean actively antagonizing the Trumpist faction of the party)? Or will I follow McMullin out of the party altogether in the hope of forming a new Reaganite party in exile?
No one knows how that fight will end up playing out. We've already seen that the unelected party apparatchiks will go whichever way the wind blows. As for elected members of the party, each of them will face a distinct dilemma. A representative from Utah or Wisconsin will have more support at home to fight for a restoration of the old-style, conservative-movement Republican Party. But those from the South and many other areas of the Midwest will face strong contrary, Trumpist pressures.
The different factions may find common ground in their hatred of Hillary Clinton. But that won't help individual Republicans decide whether to allow a vote on the new president's Supreme Court nominees. Or to work with her on reforming the Affordable Care Act. Or to pass budgets and fund the government. Or to vote to impeach her.
At each of those points and countless others, Republicans will be forced to make choices that place them on different sides of the deep fissures dividing the party, with no end in sight.
Which is why the real GOP crack-up begins after Nov. 8.