Evan McMullin’s presidential campaign brings to mind an old joke. A man goes to the doctor and complains, “I just threw out my back.” His doctor replies, “Good, your old one gave you nothing but trouble.”
For many conservatives, the 2016 race for the White House is no laughing matter. Dispirited by both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, McMullin, a 40-year-old former CIA operative and House Republican policy aide, gives them a presidential candidate they can feel good about voting for.
Like the doctor in the joke, it’s tempting to reply, “Good, your old one gave you nothing but trouble.” But McMullin’s following seems to be disproportionately made up of conservatives who thought everything was fine until Trump showed up like an uninvited dinner guest who lacked the Bush-era GOP’s table manners.
McMullin supporters were generally happy with George W. Bush. “For a decade, Republican voters have signaled they wanted to protect Medicare, cut immigration, fight fewer wars, and nominate no more Bushes,” wrote former Bush speechwriter David Frum. “Their party leaders interpreted those signals as demands to cut Medicare, increase immigration, put boots on the ground in Syria, and nominate another Bush.”
The McMullin campaign espouses three out of four of those positions. And while his independent presidential bid is a break from the fourth, many of his high-profile supporters wanted the Republican Party to nominate Marco Rubio, the candidate most closely associated with the 43rd president’s legacy on immigration and foreign policy without the Bush family baggage.
Those issues aside, it is easy to see why. McMullin has, quite honorably, argued for a conservatism that is more inclusive of racial and religious minorities. Rubio, to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s line about his first cabinet, looks like this new movement. Trump—an old, rich white man out of central casting given to insensitive remarks and conspiracy theories about the first African-American president’s birthplace—resembles everything that has long made conservatives my age and younger uncomfortable with the GOP.
But it’s an awfully selective exercise in constitutional conservatism. Immigration restrictionists are fond of quoting the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht’s line about the government deciding to dissolve the people and elect another. That quite literally describes what some anti-Trump conservatives hope to do with the conservative movement after the election.
Forgive the politically incorrect turn of phrase, but the new version would have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. That the deeply flawed Trump is the GOP nominee and McMullin is competing mainly in Utah, Idaho, and Northern Virginia while otherwise getting a Constitution Party-sized vote share is just one example of how small this constituency is. Presidential candidates preferred by conservative elites have regularly received fewer primary votes than both the establishment and populist alternatives.
Conservatives have struggled to win over minorities even when they don’t talk like Trump. Bob Dole voted for all the major civil-rights legislation of the 1960s and told David Duke’s supporters they were unwelcome in the Republican Party just five years after the ex-Klansman won the white vote in Louisiana’s gubernatorial runoff. Jack Kemp was the GOP’s most passionate advocate of minority outreach.
The 1996 Dole-Kemp ticket received 12 percent of the black vote. It also carried 21 percent of Hispanics, six points worse than Mitt Romney’s baleful performance in 2012.
George W. Bush had many faults, but racial and religious intolerance certainly weren’t among them. He made inroads with Hispanics but was brutally unpopular with blacks. His policies, as opposed to his responsible and judicious rhetoric concerning Islam, alienated much of the Muslim world. Anti-Muslim paranoia probably did more to whip up grassroots enthusiasm for, say, invading Iraq than did high-minded talk about the freedom agenda or democracy promotion.
Finally, an anti-globalism coalition has the potential to appeal to a more diverse electorate than movement conservatism ever has. Most politicians who have tried to forge one from the left have failed because they did not did not share the cultural conservatism of the white working class. Most who have tried do so from the right, like Trump, have failed because they have relied too heavily on that demographic group’s racial resentment. But that doesn’t mean no one will ever get it right.
With all that has transpired in this long presidential campaign, Republicans may simply trade some college-educated white voters and some of Mitt Romney’s non-white voters for more non-college whites. Things are still fluid and a Hillary Clinton blowout is possible, but in the Electoral College it could be a wash, even with McMullin in the race.
Could some future Republican candidate find a way to bring the college-educated Romney voters together with the non-college Trump voters? Might one try?
Many conservatives who have taken strong anti-Trump stands have endured unconscionable harassment from some of the most repulsive bigots ever energized by a modern presidential campaign, especially on social media. It is therefore understandable why such conservatives would conflate a relatively small number of anonymous racist Twitter provocateurs with 40 percent of the Republican primary electorate and want nothing to do with them, recommending that they be purged in the same way William F. Buckley Jr. excised anti-Semites from the early conservative movement.
In some cases, that’s exactly what should happen. But Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won over millions of voters who had cast ballots for George Wallace, an open segregationist. Nixon did so while desegregating Southern schools at a faster clip than the Johnson administration, Reagan while signing a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act.
They could also have agreed with the liberals of their time that concern about crime, welfare, and social disorder was solely motivated by racism, which in some cases it partially was. Instead, Nixon and Reagan tried to deal responsibly with these voters’ legitimate concerns and were rewarded with 49-state landslides (that’s 48 more than just winning Utah). What past center-right leaders did, however imperfectly, with crime and welfare, future ones must do with immigration and the challenges of multiculturalism.
Too many conservatives have used Trump’s worst character flaws and worst supporters as an excuse to avoid any introspection. If Evan McMullin wins any electoral votes, that will be a major success for his campaign—but a pretty low bar to clear for movement conservatism.
James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.