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GOP Primary Advice: Instead of ‘By the Book’ Try ‘Buy the Book'
Candidates serious about defeating Donald Trump need a new strategy.
I was reminded a few weeks ago that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the release of my first novel, From a Dead Sleep. It was quite an experience becoming a first-time published author, and entering a world I knew very little about. It was a lengthy, sometimes difficult process writing and editing a 400-page story. Almost as challenging was getting eyes on it, once it was published.
Contrary to popular belief, few authors rely solely on their publisher or publicist to generate attention for their books. In most cases, there’s a lot of reader engagement required if an author (especially a first-time author) is to have any hope of his or her work connecting with an audience.
As a newbie to the game back in 2013, my eyes and ears were open to all kinds of advice for making that connection. The most base-level among it — given by just about every source I turned to for guidance (my publisher, “how to” books, online articles, other authors, etc.) was to be excited about your book. Because if you — the author — aren’t excited about it, no one else is going to be.
It made sense, and it didn’t even feel like much of an ‘ask.’ After all, I was excited about my book. I thought it was quite good, and I was reasonably confident that others would too. For the next several months, in lots of different ways, I put myself out there in front of readers and expressed that genuine excitement. I coordinated book signings, traveled to several events, went on radio and online programs, fielded all kinds of questions, and presented what I thought were good, authentic, compelling reasons for why readers should take a chance on me (a relative unknown) and my book.
It paid off. The book sold far better than I expected, readers enjoyed it (it has a four-star average on Amazon with almost 1,200 reviews), and it launched an ongoing series. But was there any special sauce behind what I did? Not really. It was basic salesmanship, or persuasion. If you want people to support you and your efforts, you’ve got to excite them — give them a reason to lend that support to you.
I hesitate to draw a comparison between selling books and selling a political candidacy, because politics are far more complicated, but I think there’s some relevance in doing so. Stick with me…
Right now, as I watch the 2024 presidential election begin to take shape, I don’t see a whole lot of excitement… not from the declared the candidates, and not from those expected to jump in soon. Heck, I’m not even seeing much in the way of basic salesmanship or persuasion.
On the Democratic side, this isn’t surprising. Joe Biden’s never been all that exciting. Feisty at times? Sure. But he’s not exciting, and he’s not even much of a salesman these days. And unless he ultimately decides not to run (of which I still think there’s a decent possibility), that’ll be a challenge Democrats will have to contend with.
Biden’s dullness didn’t matter so much in 2020, of course, because most Americans desperately needed a break from Donald Trump, whose own brand of excitement far too often came in the form of chaos, ineptitude, and belligerence. The country was exhausted, and the pandemic made the situation even worse. Americans were ready for “dull.”
In 2024, the country may well be ready for something else. In fact, I’m sure it is. Biden is deeply unpopular (for good reason), and Trump is even less popular (also for good reason). Most folks would prefer that both of these guys retire from politics.
This political landscape would seem to be holding the door wide open for an enterprising fresh face within the Republican party to introduce themself on the national stage, and enthusiastically put forth a positive, compelling case for why voters should support him or her.
But we’re not seeing that — at least not yet. Republican candidates (declared and presumptive) are still too afraid to meaningfully distinguish themselves from the party’s front-runner — a guy who’s currently about 20 points underwater in national favorability. Despite Trump’s political toxicity outside of the party, they’re treating him as a world-class author, and themselves as far less interesting imitators.
To be fair, there have been a few exceptions to the slavishness, though those brief moments of pseudo-defiance are sometimes walked back, and don’t typically include Trump being called out by name. Also, Asa Hutchinson (who’s not exactly a fresh face) deserves some credit for showing something resembling a backbone. But the prevailing GOP primary strategy thus far has been for hopefuls to refrain from criticizing (or even distancing themselves from) the guy who famously tried to overturn U.S. democracy, and rely instead on their identity differences (like age, gender, ethnicity, and backstory) as key distinguishing factors. Tim Scott did that again just the other day.
They’re largely doing things “by the book” — specifically Trump’s book. Instead, they should be focused on selling their own.
Of course, that assumes these individuals are actually trying to win. Some of these candidates — I think Nikki Haley and Tim Scott included — are running to be Trump’s Vice President (a position I don’t understand anyone wanting after January 6). Along similar lines, Vivek Ramaswamy (as National Review’s Charles Cooke recently described) is effectively running as Trump’s hype-man… for self-serving purposes unrelated to the presidency.
I do think Ron DeSantis is serious about becoming president, but up until now he’s aligned himself about as closely to Trump as the three individuals I just mentioned, despite the former president’s regular, unanswered attacks on him (which are taking a toll on the governor’s presidential ambitions).
The problem is that the GOP primary, thus far, is defined by fear — fear of angering Trump, and fear of offending the still MAGA-heavy base. And as is the case with selling books (and lots of other things), if fear keeps a candidate from getting excited about their own campaign, how on earth can they expect other people — namely primary voters — to get excited about it?
The answer is that they can’t. And that’s a far more consequential problem than someone trying to pitch novels.
Again, for some of the candidates, winning isn’t the objective, in which case the excitement factor may not matter a whole lot. But those who do want to win need to push aside that fear, stand on their own two feet, and make a coherent, exciting case for why voters should choose them over the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
I’m not saying it will be simple. We’re talking, after all, about a political base that has held Trump to virtually no standards (including basic constitutional ones), and has been conditioned to follow him down just about any rabbit hole he takes them. But if the candidates can’t meaningfully distinguish themselves from him, and offer themselves up as an attractive alternative, they might as well just drop out of the race right now.
You can write the best book in the world, but if you can’t compel people to read it, it will remain a hidden gem.