Opinion writer

President Trump in Palm Beach, Fla., and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. (Don Emmert/Agence France-Presse and Natalia Kolesnikova/Getty Images)

Evan McMullin, who ran for president as an independent conservative, and his running mate, Mindy Finn. have just announced their next venture — one that could fill a gaping hole in the public debate. Stand Up Republic, a 501(c)(4) nonpartisan organization,  will “seek to organize and lead Americans in the defense of the fundamental principles upon which this nation was founded.” Its website says it intends to “build and organize a grassroots movement in defense of liberty, equality, and truth in America. Our priorities will be to uphold the Constitution and defend the democratic norms and institutions upon which the protection of our basic rights depend.” Only in the era of President Trump could that sound sort of subversive.

Since his presidential campaign (stressing equality/tolerance, a strong U.S. defense and constitutional government), McMullin added “truth” to his agenda. In a phone interview, I asked him why. “We want to be a watchdog of the administration,” he says. “But this is not only about Trump.” It’s only because Trump has gone to war with reality, invented “alternative facts” — known as lies — that this is even an issue.

“Undermining truth is a typical authoritarian tactic. It is incredibly dangerous,” McMullin explains. If truth is up for debate, then leaders “cannot be held accountable.” He continues, “Accountability depends on Americans’ ability to know the truth. Undermining truth is a way to undermine other sources of information. If they’ve done that, they can provide their own narrative.” Welcome to the era of Trump, and the response it is evoking. “We never thought we’d be talking about this in America,” he says with the same incredulity many are expressing about Trump’s attachment to easily disproved lies.

Stand Up Republic, like McMullin’s campaign, also will focus on defense of democratic (small “d”) norms, constitutionalism and civic involvement. “We’ll be using the organization to build and organize a grass-roots movement to apply pressure on issues as they arise.” He notes that democracy is under siege right now. He cites a World Values Survey “that found only 30 percent of those born [since] the 1980s think it is very important to live in a democracy. For those born before WWII, the number was 72 percent.” McMullin argues, “We need an organization to find common ground on democracy. Since the election, people are taking interest in defending the Constitution. That’s great!”

While he is conservative, McMullin has confidence that his message will have resonance on both sides of the aisle. “We saw this very interesting thing. Most of our support in the campaign was from constitutional conservatives,” he tells me. “Since the election we have gotten a ton of people joining from the left. They came because we are standing up for the Constitution.” Despite real, unbridgeable differences on policy issues, he says, “We see an existing common ground to defend these [democratic] institutions. It’s organic. We don’t have to compromise anything.”

McMullin, a former CIA officer and strong proponent of U.S. leadership, criticizes Trump’s reverence for Russian president Vladimir Putin. “[Trump] was very open about this during the election. It’s tragic since Putin is someone who kills journalists, imprisons opponents — if he doesn’t off them, [he] is complicit in crimes against humanity. And he’s undermining the entire international order.” While it is not surprising that Trump has gone down this road, it is deeply disturbing that the U.S. president, the leader of the free world, has embraced Putin. McMullin says, “Russia is actually undermining democracy in Europe and the United States. He knows a weaker Europe and a weaker United States will allow him to carry out his expansionist ambitions.”

McMullin’s movement to stand up for democracy and truth implicitly and explicitly is about standing up to Russia and other foes of Western democracies. The group is already out with an anti-Putin/anti-Trump ad:

McMullin knows that his organization does not mean much without strong grass-roots involvement. “It is incumbent upon Americans to see that their representatives uphold the Constitution. One would hope they do it.” He argues that “unless Americans demand they put country first,” it won’t happen.

The question remains whether those horrified by Trump’s assault on democratic norms and truth can work together to defend the previously arcane emoluments clause or a free press — or, most basically, democracy and the rule of law in the West. The stakes are high.