Salt Lake City on Election Night felt like the Alamo for modern conservatism in 2016, the last stand of stalwart Trump opponents on the right. And much like the defenders at the Alamo, #NeverTrump suffered a resounding defeat.
As both Trump and Clinton were fortified in concrete palaces in New York City, awaiting their electoral fates, those that opposed them both the loudest hunkered down in a part of the country both ignored and forgotten in 2016.
But it is Utah where the Never Trump movement, embodied by independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin, stood its last and best chance of making one final resounding statement to a jaded electorate. Evan McMullin’s candidacy was never so much about him as it was the principled opposition he championed.
Anyone could have been Evan McMullin — Mitt Romney, David French, Carly Fiorina, another guy off the street. But it was McMullin, along with his running mate Mindy Finn, who stood up in the end.
McMullin, a former CIA operative, House GOP policy director, and native of Utah — and Mormon — caught fire (and drew the ire of a disgruntled Donald Trump) in the weeks leading up to the election, and at one point held a slim lead over both Hillary Clinton and Trump in Utah polls. That wasn’t a result of simply showing up and acting as a lightning rod for an electorate turned off by the major party nominees, but was a testament to how serious McMullin actually became as a candidate.
The McMullin vote, in states where he was on the ballot & data is available. pic.twitter.com/7lnSxaxjKR
— Patrick Ruffini (@PatrickRuffini) November 9, 2016
McMullin had no illusions about his candidacy, nor did he mislead those who followed him about what his goals were. Reaching 270 electoral votes and miraculously sweeping the White House out from under Clinton or Trump was never the goal. He knew it. His team knew it.
Even as returns came in, McMullin’s mood never changed — and neither did the mood in the room when it became clear Trump would take Utah and ultimately the White House. The room remained energetic. No one left early. Supporters accepted the results but vowed to fight on.
“We always knew getting Evan to the White House was a long shot, but what we were able to build in three months simply amazes me,” said Sarah Rumpf, a former Breitbart writer who became a part of Evan McMullin’s digital communications team. “With no money, no political party, and a candidate with no name recognition, we built a national grassroots network.”
One thing that was striking was just how young McMullin’s core team was. These are not the aged cable personalities and Republican Party has-beens that found themselves aboard the Trump train for one last middle-fingered stab at the Oval Office. They looked like Obama’s digital team from 2008.
“Almost our entire campaign team was under 40, and this was the first time for us to have someone from our generation running for President.” Rumpf said.
This is the lost generation that the GOP has ignored on college campuses and just out of college, disenchanted by Barack Obama’s failed promises of hope and the GOP’s willful refusal to embrace the future.
The GOP didn’t need them this election. But they will in elections to come. Polls of younger generations are skewing further toward the populist socialism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Four (eight?) years of a Trump presidency may accelerate that trend. McMullin supporters wanted to send a clear signal that not everyone will fall in line and go along for the ride.
As the night became longer and a Trump victory became more and more evident, the only ones at the McMullin event that started scrambling in surprise were members of the press. Trump’s strong showing as the votes came in certainly came as surprising to many gathered around televisions, but the McMullin supporters in the room were resigned to the fact that no matter who came out ahead in the end, conservatives at large would be left out.
Even as McMullin conceded the election, he did not concede an end to the anti-Trump movement on the right, nor did anyone on his team. They have vowed to double down and move forward with what they call a “new conservative movement” against a Republican party that now belongs to Donald Trump. In their eyes, the GOP did a poor job promoting core values such as liberty and limited government prior to Trump’s rise, and they didn’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Whether that movement includes McMullin himself, or Finn, is still up in the air. As the night wound down, members of his team gathered and dispersed, saying their goodbyes, unsure of where their ideological home is now. One thing they are still sure of is their opposition to Trump, now president-elect, is as strong as it was two days ago. For them, that’s at least a start.
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