Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin never stood a chance of winning the White House last November, but he did become an acceptable voting alternative for NeverTrump Republicans and conservatives whose conscience simply wouldn’t allow them to support the GOP nominee.
As a principled, small-government conservative, McMullin ran largely on traditional Republican values and policies—hallmarks that many in the party feared Donald Trump’s primary victory had placed on the endangered species list. The Utahan’s experience as a CIA officer helped him speak confidently and knowledgeably about our nation’s foreign policy challenges (a particularly troubling area for Trump), and his unapologetic support of the free market added to his appeal.
His most compelling argument, however, was his strong sense of character and common decency. He adamantly rejected Trump’s depraved statements, his nasty treatment of others, and the populist anger that fueled the nominee’s campaign. McMullin never wasted an opportunity to emphasize the importance of personal integrity, citing Trump’s deficiency in that area as one of the reasons an opposition candidate from the Right was needed.
With a very limited budget, and a ridiculously narrow path to victory, much of McMullin’s presidential campaign was waged on the internet. He and his eventual running mate, Mindy Finn, spent a lot of time on social media courting disaffected Republicans with the message that Trump was as dangerous for America’s future as Hillary Clinton.
Their morally-charged arguments took aim at Trump’s chronic dishonesty. They slammed his unserious positions on a multitude of issues, and his adoption of the same demagogic rhetoric that conservatives reliably denounce when it comes from the Left. Over and over again, they asked the Republican base if it was truly prepared to support and normalize the perverse behavior of a man who was, in their name, making a mockery of their principles.
The McMullin campaign may not have been the voice of the conservative movement; most voters on the political Right probably didn’t even know it existed. It did, however, become a voice of conscience for movement-conservatives who were torn between practicing what they’ve long preached and shelving their integrity for a wildcard vulgarian.
In the end, anti-Hillary sentiment proved to be a stronger force than principled opposition. The Right largely rallied around the Republican nominee, deeming him to be the lesser of two evils.
Those who were aware of McMullin and his campaign probably figured he’d fade back into obscurity after the election. Instead, he has taken on a new public role…as social media’s leading conservative Trump watchdog.
McMullin hasn’t let up on Trump, not even a little bit. He uses his Twitter account to deliver daily attacks on the president-elect’s rhetoric, judgement, and positions, while aggressively pointing out the hypocrisy and spinelessness of the Republicans who defend it. He sticks up for those who Trump puts in his Twitter crosshairs (from both sides of the political aisle), and he has shown a willingness to lend credence to the critiques of even Trump’s most liberal critics.
Some of McMullin’s assessments have been so brutal, and borderline personal, that even notable conservatives who’ve been highly skeptical of Trump are becoming irritated with the former candidate.
Last month, for example, Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist tweeted, “How do you do that thing where you keep Evan McMullin from showing up in your feed in any way shape or form? Asking for me.”
Have some of McMullin’s attacks been over the top and petty? Without question. Most of them, however, have been well within the range of scrutiny that conservatives have placed on President Barack Obama over the past eight years. In fact, many of the criticisms are identical to the ones used against the president: narcissism, pop-culture grandstanding, attacks on the media, executive orders, infrastructure spending, dismissiveness of our intelligence agencies, etc.
It’s this single-standard approach, and the intellectual consistency that comes with it, that makes the arguments particularly effective. It’s hard to escape the notion, then, that what might just annoy Republicans the most about McMullin is that he is a painful, persistent reminder of what so many of them used to be.
The party gave up some of its most cherished principles to support the man who went on to become its new leader. And many Righties quietly decided that some of the things they complained about for nearly a decade weren’t all that bad after all. McMullin, however, is sticking to the old set of the rules, and he doesn’t seem to care who it ticks off.
For better or for worse, this former presidential candidate—who most people have never heard of—has become social media’s nagging conservative conscience. And I don’t expect he’ll be giving up the position anytime soon.