Bountiful, Utah — El Matador Mexican Restaurant in Bountiful, Utah, is an odd place to be thinking about Thomas Hobbes, but here we are.
“We” is David Evan McMullin, independent candidate for president, and his running mate, Mindy Finn, who are downing nachos during a brief visit with a handful of local supporters — the umpteenth stop of their day on a whirlwind campaign that launched two months ago and will end in less than two weeks, probably. “Probably,” because if McMullin wins Utah and becomes the first third-party candidate to win electoral votes in 48 years, and if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the two major-party nominees, split the other 532, no candidate would achieve the requisite 270 votes in the Electoral College, at which point, the campaign would turn to lobbying the House of Representatives, which would be tasked with selecting the next commander-in-chief. This, at least, is the theory.
McMullin is doing his part to make it reality. In mid October, polls suddenly showed a tight, three-way contest in a state that Republicans have not lost since 1964, with McMullin either in the lead or just behind Trump. That state of play appears to be holding. In case there was any doubt that the Trump campaign is concerned, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Lou Dobbs all spent time last week attacking McMullin (Dobbs, indulging in a refreshingly honest moment of unveiled bigotry, suggested McMullin was part of a “Mormon Mafia”), and on Wednesday, Mike Pence flew in for a rally in Salt Lake City.
Once again, this is Utah we’re talking about.
Under normal circumstances, Evan McMullin would not be a likely presidential candidate. After graduating from BYU in 2001, he served for a decade in the CIA, including in clandestine operations overseas. In 2011, having obtained a MBA from Penn’s Wharton School of Business (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), he joined the investment-banking division at Goldman Sachs. Two years later, he became a senior adviser on national security for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where he served for a term before becoming the House Republican Conference’s chief policy director, a position from which he resigned in August. An impressive résumé, but not the sort that lays the groundwork for a plausible presidential run, which involves things like national name recognition, seven-figure fundraising, and rhetorical discipline, usually honed by long hours on the trail, campaigning for steadily loftier offices.
Of course, by these and the many other time-honored criteria, Donald Trump would not be an obvious presidential contender, either. But it turns out that, when you get Donald Trump, you also get Evan McMullin. The question on my mind — and the reason I’m here in Utah — is: Why?
McMullin calls himself a conservative — an “actual” conservative, he emphasizes — and he talks like one. He wants entitlement reform and a strong national defense and real separation of powers. He likes school choice and Uber. He’s pro-life. He sounds like Paul Ryan without the short Wisconsin vowels. He’s amicable, mild-mannered, and, for a non-politician, skillful on stage. Finn — entrepreneur, tech consultant, and political adviser — is less wooing, more businesslike, as befits someone whose time has been spent generally getting things done. On the stump together, she opens, he closes, then they trade off during any Q&A. It’s what the Republican ticket could have looked like.
Instead, says Finn, the Republican party has opted — in the presidential realm, at least — for “racism, sexism, and bigotry.” The Republican nominee has insulted — she ticks off the list — “Hispanics and African Americans and women and religious minorities and people with disabilities.” No wonder Trump is struggling, she says; he’s alienated most of the American electorate. Meanwhile, the Democrats have nominated “arguably the most corrupt presidential candidate in modern times.” And voters are now expected to pick between them.
Which brings us back to El Matador and nachos and Thomas Hobbes.
At every stop, McMullin and Finn get The Question: Why is a vote for you not a wasted vote/vote for X? It’s not hostile as much as pleading: I want to believe! Help my unbelief! To this, Finn says that neither Trump nor Clinton is “entitled” to anyone’s vote, and McMullin adds that the only way to avoid situations like the present, where Americans are asked to choose the lesser of two evils, is to stop accepting the belief that we must choose between the lesser of two evils.
Thomas Hobbes — English philosopher, scientist, pessimist — was the master of lesser-of-two-evils logic. Mankind was, he theorized, born unto a “war of all against all,” a brutal Lord of the Flies–type scenario to be tamed by a social contract and the appointment of some sort of ruler with absolute power to keep the peace. Absolute power meant exactly that, so “Leviathan” could be brutal — but he would, on the whole, keep everyone from hacking each other apart willy-nilly. Things would always be fundamentally bad, but they could be made less bad.
A.D. 2016 has been, along with much else, a Hobbes-haunted year. Donald Trump has depicted a country beset by emigré rapists and suburban terrorists and afflicted by inner cities that are hellscapes. The world is falling apart, and “I alone can fix it,” he says. Hillary Clinton suggests that the world will fall apart if Donald Trump is elected — and that that is a contingency that she alone can prevent. Both are corrupt, self-absorbed, pathologically deceitful individuals who have spent their lives smearing, silencing, and exploiting their fellow citizens — but politics is an ugly business, and some times are uglier than others. You make your peace.
If Hobbes was right.
But there is an alternative, amply testified to in the American tradition — of genuine decency and real public-spiritedness, of men and women rising to an occasion out of something more than self-interest. These ranks include heroes sung and unsung, but much more often ordinary Americans with a simple concern for a common, imperiled good.
In a year like this, one might feel justified asking if such public-spiritedness still exists. After all, it’s not just the nominees. It’s the Democrats who, rather than risk losing the White House, turned a blind eye to the endangerment of state secrets. It’s the Republicans who said that their nominee reminded them of Mussolini — then backed him anyway. It’s the opportunists, on either side, who endorsed salaciousness or animosity because it meant better ratings or more clicks. The way things are going, would it be a surprise if one of the rumors about Evan McMullin — that he’s a tool of powerful D.C. interests, that he secretly wants Hillary Clinton to be president, that he has simply seized an opportunity to make his name — turned out to be true?
But what if something else is true — something that accounts for the overflow crowds at Bountiful City Hall and Utah Valley University, and the standing ovations, and the people who don’t have questions in the Q&A, but simply stand up to say, “Thank you for what you’re doing”? What if the candidate simply believes what he says?
It is highly unlikely that Evan McMullin will be president, now or ever. It is unlikely that his campaign marks the beginning of a “new conservative movement,” as he likes to say, or — even less likely — of a new party, and, personally, I am skeptical about the notion that it should. And it is unlikely that Evan McMullin will play a significant part in whatever is the future of conservatism in the United States.
But that’s not the point. This year, the two major parties chose as their standard-bearers two individuals who are unfit to lead the United States — because they are indecent, because they are corrupt, but at heart because they don’t really believe in the American creed: in the idea of all men being created equal; of unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; of government of, by, and for the people. They believe merely in exploiting those principles toward their own ends. If those foundational principles are to endure as more than historical relics or rhetorical niceties, they need a voice. Evan McMullin and Mindy Finn, with almost no prospect of success in their endeavor — and with every reason to believe that they would be viewed by millions of Americans as spoilers or holier-than-thou ideologues or “puppets” of some “Establishment” — spoke up for those principles, defended them, evangelized them, and gave voters the opportunity to vote for them.
In a moment like ours, that’s no small thing. In fact, it’s very much the opposite.