Hubbub and buzz, rising excitement, you could hear it from the stairwell and the foyer, a fine old Victorian-era vestibule, fluted columns and architraves. Folks streaming up the stairs, choking them, polite to each other, check shirts and farmer jeans, longish old-world skirts and neat pinned hair on some of the gals.
Upstairs, the hall expands, a modern space, no walls, just the old casement windows looking out on the desert evening. Four hundred adults here, five maybe, and kids kids kids everywhere, families of five or six, couples with a baby, two toddlers, and a five-year-old. There’s a big screen at the front, sky blue, with “no link” and an old sad-face computer motto.
Three teenagers in neat suits and short-back-and-sides are crouched around a wired-up laptop on the floor, tapping at it and bickering quietly. Something goes ping and a picture comes up on the screen, a young man with a bald, bulbous head, a ’50s sci-fi cranium, and the legend “McMullin” below it. The crowd goes wild.
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Hard to know whether it’s for the candidate or the sheer fact of getting an old laptop working that’s being cheered. The young woman with neat hair and owlish tortoiseshell glasses turns towards me: “Oh this is so exciting!”
“Oh yeah, even though it’s just a digital townhall.”
“No, I hear they changed it — he’s appearing live.”
She flashes a “don’t-mess-with-me” look.
Teenager in suit comes out the front. “Ladies and gentlemen, the candidate is here in person tonight …”
The crowd goes wild. For a man running at less than 1% in the polls nationally, who by next year might be president.
Welcome to St George, in the bottom corner of Utah, a pretty old town surrounded by a modern city of witless ugliness in a low valley bordered by walls of red rock. This was the third settlement founded by the Mormons in Utah territory, the winter home of Brigham Young, and home of the oldest surviving temple, a transcendentally beautiful tower and hall in stunning white, the stone rendered in a slight curve so as to look like a tent fluttering in the soft desert wind. The place is named of course after “St George Washington”, who now sits at the right hand of Jesus in heaven, something believed with varying degrees of literality by 70% of the people around here.
The old town is filled with temples and halls, a street of prosperous shops, a theatre, a sense of civic centrality elsewhere long ago lost. People everywhere, on the street, in the churches. People? Well, families, because no one seems to be solo in St George. The town’s biggest diner has every booth crammed all day, couples and kids, and … more than couples. Down the road are towns where the old fundamentalist sects hang out, the ones who still believe in polygamy. There are … ensembles of one man and two women, and like five kids, all hoeing into blueberry pancakes, small purple mattresses on a plate, crowned in whipped cream. Two women? An aunt, family friend, surely. Hmmm. How would I ask about that … The town, like the state, is fecund as all get out, the injunction to the faithful to multiply and spread throughout the Earth.
The red dust from the hills clings to you in St George; by evening your hands look like a pack of BBQ Shapes. Red in other ways; this is, aside from Utah county itself, up around Provo, the most Republican county in the nation. In 2012, around 82% of people voted for Mitt Romney — “and I can’t imagine who the other 18% could be,” says the old woman at the desk of the Palm Vistas motel, wheezy, laughing. What’s her opinion of the Donald? She clams up. “Awwww, I don’t want to talk about him.” She’s not the only one. Donald Trump has never been popular in Utah, the Mormons being unwilling, unlike evangelicals, to give him a free pass on the general matter of being a profane moral degenerate. Trump placed a rare third in the Utah primary.
Nevertheless, it was assumed that however many Republicans stayed home, the party’s massive lead would keep the state safe. Then, in August, the so-called #neverTrump faction of the right announced — through the medium of hapless fixer Bill Kristol — that they had found a candidate to run against Trump, the young, fresh-faced Utah native Evan McMullin. This seemed quixtoic, even for the #neverTrumpers — with only four months left in the campaign, ballot entry closed in many states, no party machine, no money and the failed record of third-party candidates.
The announcement garnered a brief flurry of attention — largely as a measure of how flaky Kristol and other neocons had become — and attention returned to the daily Trumptrocity. Then in September someone did a poll. And in Utah Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were running neck and neck at 26%. And Evan McMullin was at 22%, after having done three public meetings. And suddenly Utah was real, real interesting.
“Well, I didn’t intend to do this,” says McMullin after he’s appeared from the wings and taken the mic. “But here we are.” Blue blazer and khaki chinos, the uniform of casual Republican, McMullin is soft-spoken and engaging, in his 40s, looks younger than the 35-year-old minimum age for Prez (Chelsea ’24 — you know it makes sense). The only thing that marks him out is that head, shaved to hide youthful balding, bit of a tell that, and, well, there just seems too much of it, it flows over his forehead, as if his brain had too many thoughts. He has a light touch, a warm personal manner, has had a business consultancy, the requisite wife and children. Called to valiant service by the plight of the Republic, a regular Mr Smith Goes to Washington (with Mrs Smith and Mrs Smith and …). “My life has been about service, since my years in the CIA …” Hang on, what? Oh, yes. For more than a decade, Mr Smith was in the Company.
“I found about the CIA when I was nine,” says McMullin, as my jaw falls slightly and no one else’s does, “and I read everything I could about it, and I determined that that would be my life.” Sorry, you wanted to join the CIA after reading everything about it? Jesus. And Latter Day Saints. OK let’s hear some more. “after 12 years in the foreign service placements in Africa and Asia defending our interests, mainly in medical environments” — i.e. as some fake NGO — “I decided to devote myself back here to what matters most.” Domestic surveillance? “Family.” Ah yes. “Few years later they asked me to help out in Congress and I eventually became Republican Policy director.” There is a slight bristling in the audience at this announcement of a few years spent in an absolutely essential role in government. You worked for government? You’re an insider?
McMullin hits his stride. It’s a variant of the standard constitutionalist Republican speech — “I believe that this country was blessed by its creator as an embodiment of our inalienable rights, and we’ve wandered far from that … We’ll return to prosperity when we return to our principles, but our principles aren’t there to serve prosperity …” The words are the same as half-a-dozen Republican candidates, but he lacks their rancour, and their willingness to define themselves against progressives. “Republicans aren’t losing because of the media, or skewed polls, they’re losing because Donald Trump is a terrible, terrible candidate and a man unfit to be president.” An appreciative murmur goes through the hall at the heart of the reddest county of the reddest state in the land.
So what’s the game plan? Here’s the kicker, why the #neverTrumpers got behind McMullin. “Well,” he says, a little amused, “here’s the thing. If we won Utah, and the result was close, then no one would get 270 electoral college votes. So the vote gets thrown to Congress to choose from among the top three candidates. And then, some people said, Congress would pick me. Well that was the plan. But in case you haven’t notice … it’s not even close! Hillary Clinton is going to win in a landslide, if the polls are correct. And that’s because … Donald Trump is a terrible candidate!”
After, the question time — the bulk of the questions of the tenor of what the golly gosh has happened to our campaign/party/country/the universe, etc. The only time it gets a bit edgy is when a big ole feller gets up — he should have been in bib ‘n’ brace overalls, but he was in an Old Navy denim shirt and a shiny baseball cap — and said, “Well, now, you’re telling us you’re going to get us back to basics, and yet you’ve had this job in government for years.” It’s the only time McMullin gets heated: “Yes, sir, but my government work involved risking my life countless times for years” — light applause here — “and coming to Washington when asked.” Big old dude sits down happy. The abiding fantasy — that the government would have zero personnel — is satisfied.
When the thing breaks up, people crowd the tables at the door to sign up, take leaflets. I ask McMullin, at an impromptu presser, how he felt about the CIA’s full legacy in the light of some thing he might have read since childhood. “Yes, we backed dictators, and that was an error. But that was part of getting away from our God-given principles …” As a person, McMullin is immensely likable. But he has the same tight circuitry, closed loop of a mind as any Republican, because the constitution is God-given, the only cause of poor outcomes is wandering away from it, the only remedy a return. It would take a six-hour conversation to crack this hard shell and get to a real discussion of policy. And McMullin is already gone, to another gig further down the road. “Remember,” says his beefy blazered aide as they go, “he only has 52% name recognition yet! In Utah! Imagine what he’ll do in two weeks!”
Indeed. Three days later, polls had the state on a three-way tie, around 26%. Evan McMullin won’t be president, not this time round. But if he wins Utah — and possibly Idaho, thanks to its Mormon-dominated south — then he’ll make history, the first third party candidate to win a state since 1968, and the first non-segregationist third-party candidate to win since Fightin’ Bob LaFollette took Wisconsin for the Progressives in the 1920s. Should that happen — “It may have to,” McMullin said. “After this election we may simply need to form a conservative party” — then the great collapse really will be under way, not merely of the right, but of the stable two-party system.
Outside, McMullin’s team were loading up the three RVs that constitute his road train. Folks were waiting around to be photographed with him — still no smokers — between the spires, under the star hung night, the yellow M of the town McDonald’s visible among them. I waved goodbye to one of his more endearing aides. “We’re knocking on a lot of doors,” he’d told me earlier. Well, I thought, you’re Mormons. You know about knocking on fucking doors.