John Cuneo

When Evan McMullin arrived at the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., one afternoon in early April, he sensed right away that he was in enemy territory. After more than a decade in the CIA, he knows how to case a room, and the heightened security outside the building that day suggested to him the presence of someone from Donald Trump’s administration—a White House official, perhaps, or a member of the first family. As he passed through the lobby, a gaggle of Republican staffer types glared at him. By the time he joined me at a table in the hotel’s restaurant, where he noticed the conservative radio host and Trump enthusiast Laura Ingraham seated nearby, he appeared exhausted. He ordered a virgin mojito—something to help the teetotaling Mormon take the edge off—and sighed.

These people,” he muttered.

“These people,” I reminded him helpfully, “run Washington now.”

He slumped slightly, and sighed again. “You’re right about that.”

McMullin, who typically affects the eager manner of an Eagle Scout leading his troop in the Pledge of Allegiance, could be forgiven a moment of bitterness. Ever since he quit his job as a GOP policy wonk on Capitol Hill last year to launch a long-shot presidential bid under the Never Trump banner, he has been locked in near-daily battle with Trump and his supporters. On any given day, he can be found on CNN rallying viewers to resist the president’s attacks on “our system of government,” or in The New York Times warning of America’s possible descent into despotism, or on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher detailing the dangers of the commander in chief’s “bewildering” foreign policy. The ongoing media blitz has not escaped the attention of Trump himself, who has mockingly called McMullin “McMuffin.”

McMullin is not entirely comfortable with this newfound notoriety. Trim and neatly dressed, with a shaved head and a face composed of generic white-guy features, he doesn’t naturally stand out in crowds (an advantage, no doubt, in his undercover life). But in Donald Trump’s Washington, establishments like the Four Seasons are often teeming with partisans and loyalists who view McMullin as something between a nuisance and a menace. More than once as we ate, I caught him scanning the perimeters of the steak house, as though still on the lookout for adversaries.

“Sometimes,” he told me, “I will wear what at the agency we would call a ‘light disguise’ when I go out in public—like a hat and glasses.” But these days, he said, “my CIA tricks aren’t working. Maybe I’ve got to pull out one of my masks.”

The first time I met McMullin, last summer, he emanated a certain Mr. Smith Goes to Washington quality. Just a few hours after he had declared his candidacy for president—an announcement to which America responded with a resounding Huh?—we sat at a hotel bar in Midtown Manhattan, while a TV mounted above us periodically flashed images of his face. He seemed slightly overwhelmed, and though he tried not to look, he couldn’t help himself.

As a campaign neophyte with no national profile, McMullin knew he wasn’t the ideal man for the job he was taking on. For weeks, he had been among a contingent of conservatives seeking to recruit a better-known Republican to stand up and challenge Trump with an independent candidacy. But the effort proved futile. Conservative opposition was crumbling, and party leaders were swiftly falling in line behind their nominee. McMullin realized that no one else was going to step up, so he entered the race, holding out hope that principled Republican leaders would eventually join his cause. “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he told me then, wide-eyed and dutiful-sounding.

McMullin headquartered his campaign in Utah—his birthplace, and a deep-red state where polls showed overwhelming dissatisfaction with the major-party nominees—and got to work giving stump speeches that blended the unbridled idealism of a West Wing episode with the unremarkable delivery of a high-school social-studies teacher. His optimistic calls for a “new conservative movement” untainted by Trumpism caught on in Utah, where he ended up winning more than 20 percent of the vote. But endorsements from courageous conservative leaders never materialized in any significant number—and with no serious financial backing, he struggled to compete elsewhere.

Since the election, McMullin has emerged as an even more strident, and high-profile, Trump adversary. He spends less time than he once did fretting about Trump’s corruption of Republicanism, and more time making the case that his presidency constitutes a national emergency. At the core of McMullin’s argument is a belief that America has elected an unambiguous authoritarian to the Oval Office.

McMullin is perhaps at his most effective on Twitter, where he has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. The voice he deploys on the platform—righteous, authoritative, shot through with earnestness—is profoundly appealing to a certain stressed-out segment of liberal America. In his Twitter persona, they find a patriot who uses terms like the Republic without irony; who writes must where others might write should; who types things like there is still much work to do in the defense of liberty and doesn’t follow up with a self-aware lol. While the rest of the internet sinks further into cynicism each day, McMullin’s greatest appeal may be his capacity to stay shocked.

Coming from someone else, this shtick might seem sanctimonious or performative, but McMullin’s fear of despots and autocrats is deeply rooted in family history. From a young age, he was taught about his forebears fleeing strongmen and demagoguery—his mother’s grandparents escaped Poland around the time of World War II; a century before that, his father’s Mormon ancestors were driven into the desert by a campaign of religious persecution. He carried these stories with him when, in 2001, he graduated from college and entered the CIA full-time.

McMullin served for nine years as an undercover officer in South Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, spending much of his time in countries ruled by despots. He saw that authoritarians, wherever they were, worked from the same playbook—installing family members in key positions, brazenly enriching themselves, cracking down on the press, and arresting political enemies. McMullin had a visceral reaction to these injustices. “It sickened me,” he said. “The willingness to subjugate so many other people, all for your personal gain—it’s just pure evil.”

And yet, for all his time spent studying authoritarianism overseas, he says, “I didn’t expect to see [it] here in the United States in my lifetime.” Now that he believes American democracy is at risk, McMullin says he’s less fixated than he once was on the ideological debates that have dominated partisan politics. “When authoritarians come to power,” he told me, “it can reshuffle the political spectrum. Instead of having the traditional right versus left, you end up with a dynamic in which there are those who decide they are supporting the authoritarian regime, and then you have a group that opposes them.” What’s needed, he argues, is for antiauthoritarians of all ideological persuasions to set aside their disagreements and link arms in defense of core democratic principles.

In the wake of Trump’s election, a loose coalition of donors, activists, and political operatives—many of them inspired by McMullin’s message and his surprising success in Utah—have begun laying the groundwork for what they hope will be a national insurgency of independents. The mission is to recruit an army of mini-McMullins ahead of the 2018 midterms, and provide them the resources (fund-raising, legal support, media consulting) that have traditionally been available via political parties.

One group, the Centrist Project, is working to identify closely divided legislative bodies—from small state legislatures to the U.S. Senate—where electing a handful of independents could deny the major parties an outright majority. Joel Searby, McMullin’s former campaign manager, who joined the group after the election, says this scheme—known as the “fulcrum strategy”—aims to form a disproportionately powerful “swing coalition” of lawmakers who are unbound by partisan pressures.

Meanwhile, McMullin’s grassroots supporters have established what they call New Conservative Movement clubs in more than a dozen cities. They meet in small groups to assemble hygiene kits for homeless shelters, or organize “nonpartisan rallies for the Constitution.” Brad Hoganson, the network’s coordinator, says they hope to support candidates in next year’s elections—but added that any Republican who comes courting will face an uphill battle.

Of course, American history is littered with third-party flameouts and abandoned centrist crusades. Elites may fetishize independence and moderation, but voters have not shown much of an appetite for either one. For this time to be different, a considerable part of the electorate would have to buy McMullin’s argument that the defining conflict of American politics today is not right versus left, but pro-Trump versus anti-Trump. Earlier this year, he co-founded a nonprofit called Stand Up Republic aimed at reframing the national debate to this end, but it’s not an easy sell.

McMullin, who was considering a run for Congress when we spoke, has become a polarizing figure. To many on the right, he is the embodiment of the Never Trump movement’s vanities—a self-righteous virtue-signaler more interested in winning praise and retweets from liberal celebrities like George Takei and Debra Messing than in advancing a conservative agenda. Mark Hemingway, a writer for The Weekly Standard who voted for McMullin, told me his “relentless” attacks on the president amounted to “giving aid and comfort to the left.” Hemingway added: “He has an incredibly inflated sense of self-regard when really he’s just a whiner with a Twitter account.” Some suspicious Democrats, meanwhile, look past McMullin’s lofty rhetoric about democracy and see a right-winger who wants to cut social-welfare programs and limit abortion access.

In the early months of Trump’s presidency, McMullin found himself confronted with yet another problem: how to keep rallying Americans against a dangerous strongman who didn’t seem to be getting anything done. For all the president’s bluster, his first 100 days had passed without a major legislative accomplishment, let alone a constitutional crisis. “I’ve been hearing people say, ‘Donald Trump has not become a dictator—were all those warnings about authoritarianism warranted?,’ ” McMullin said.

He seemed frustrated by the question, and concerned by the growing complacency he sensed among some of Trump’s opponents. As he saw it, the “blistering opposition” to Trump deserved credit for constraining him. “The system was designed to protect against someone like Donald Trump, and it has largely succeeded at doing that.” But, he hastened to add, “it’s early.”

One evening in May, about a month after our lunch, McMullin was perched on a sofa in a cramped dressing room at Washington’s Warner Theatre. Slate’s popular podcast Political Gabfest was recording that night in front of a live audience, with McMullin as the guest star. The timing was serendipitous: Just 24 hours earlier, Trump had abruptly fired James Comey, the FBI director, unleashing a firestorm unlike any up to that point in his presidency. The chatter in Washington was laced with words like coup and Watergate.

While the Gabfest’s co-hosts—John Dickerson, Emily Bazelon, and David Plotz—bantered backstage about likely fallout, McMullin came up to me, oddly buoyant. He said he was heartened by some of the reactions from Capitol Hill, and predicted that the scandal would serve as an “inflection point” in the way Republicans dealt with the president.

“This Comey situation validates a lot of what we have been talking about,” he said. “In a strange way, I think it could be good for the country.”

Shortly after 7:30, the show began. The audience was composed of nicely dressed, overwhelmingly white Beltway dwellers, some of whom had paid $100 to attend a taping of their favorite political podcast. It was, in other words, precisely the kind of crowd that treats Evan McMullin like he’s Beyoncé. They hung on his every word—laughing at his jokes, cheering his digs at Trump, bathing him in applause when he pleaded for Americans to unite in defense of democratic ideals, norms, and institutions.

But when the conversation turned from Trump-bashing to the traditional issues that divide conservatives and liberals—taxes, regulation, the size of government—the mood in the room cooled noticeably. Whoops and cheers were replaced with scattered applause; vigorous head-nodding with discreet phone-checking. Had McMullin’s conservative critics been watching, they might have been forgiven for wondering precisely how much of the audience’s hand-wringing over authoritarianism was fueled by simple partisanship.

McMullin navigated the discussion carefully, taking pains not to endorse any specific policy positions that the audience might find unpalatable, and stressing that no legislative victory was worth Republicans selling their souls to Trump. But as Bazelon drilled down on the issues, the inherent difficulty of the cross-ideological coalition that McMullin envisioned became evident.

“We’re in this moment here where we have a president who absolutely has authoritarian tendencies,” he said to Bazelon at one point, “and you’re still arguing for a large, centralized government. Now is a moment where we may want to rethink that.”

It was a good line, and McMullin’s delivery begged for applause. What he got instead was a solitary whoo echoing across an otherwise silent theater.