Image by Emma Kumer

Stumped | Why Write (or Read) a Campaign Book?

Mark Chiusano

When Donald Trump summoned Chris Christie to the White House in 2018 to offer him a job as chief of staff, Trump’s most pressing question had to do not with background checks or political alignment, but with Christie’s new book, Let Me Finish. More specifically, Trump wanted to know: was it critical of him? “The book is honest about you,” Christie said, adding that the book disparaged people close to Trump. “How bad is it?” Trump asked. 

This anecdote — courtesy of yet another book from Christie, Republican Rescue (2021) — suggests that campaign books are important to the candidates themselves, obsessed as they are with their own reputations. But it’s fair to ask why the books should matter to anyone else, and why the tradition of writing and publishing them persists, even though they harken back to a bygone political era. The former president’s question — how bad is it? — might, in fact, be posed about each of the recent books authored by GOP presidential hopefuls, a list that includes Republican Rescue as well as Ron DeSantis’s The Courage to Be Free: Florida’s Blueprint for America’s Revival, Nikki Haley’s If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons from Bold Women, Vivek Ramaswamy’s Capitalist Punishment: How Wall Street Is Using Your Money to Create a Country You Didn’t Vote For, Tim Scott’s America, a Redemption Story: Choosing Hope, Creating Unity, and Mike Pence’s Go Home for Dinner: Advice on How Faith Makes a Family and Family Makes a Life

Unsurprisingly, these books are bad. Very. They are pompous and eye-roll-inducing, never surmounting the obvious central weakness of the genre: it’s riskier for an active politician to tell a good story than to slap some safe and boring words on a page. Before I get accused of partisan hackery, let me certify that Democratic campaign books are very bad, too. In 2020, we learned such riveting details as that former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro wanted to “help others in my neighborhood be able to reach their own dreams” and that Vice President Kamala Harris felt that her 2016 senate campaign team “was in it together every step of the way.” 

We are one nation united by thousands of pages of awful prose from the people who want to be in charge — and this year, it’s Republicans who are vying for the throne. Reading these hastily composed tomes, with their telling omissions and accidental truths, allows us to glimpse fuller pictures of the candidates than they themselves might mean to reveal. These texts can be mined for biographical details that few but the political-junkiest remember — like the fact that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis got married at Disney World (his wife’s idea, allegedly). And they tend to expose their authors’ weak spots. Nikki Haley’s bumbling December comments about the causes of the Civil War (she didn’t mention slavery) were greeted with shock and condemnation. But attentive readers of her work could have reported that, in If You Want Something Done (2022), she both-sidesedly notes that “there was a place for the Confederate flag,” and that growing up, she “knew people who viewed the flag as a matter of history and Southern heritage.” 

These are telling particularities, helpful in assembling an accounting of each candidate, particularly in an age when presidential contenders face fewer and fewer hard journalistic questions, protected by hordes of press secretaries and a media ecosystem committed to horse-race coverage. But well before these candidates started dropping out in rapid succession, it was clear that none was likely to be elected president. The real utility of these books is that they illustrate the grip Trump holds over his own haggard competitors, laboring as they do to tell their stories. That they bothered writing these books — or running at all — can shed light on the delusions of a Republican party still straining to make sense of Trump’s influence. Where does the GOP turn after Trump? None of the other candidates in the race had a clue. They were doomed even before they took pen to paper. So why did they?


A campaign book can serve as a sort of “exploratory committee,” as the political lifer Chuck Todd described the genre to The New York Times in 2007. They test whether a candidate has appeal from coast to coast. They also allow a candidate to get ready to run. All those bookstore readings and signings let you take the temperature of the electorate and establish national connections, while soft-focus TV interviews introduce you to a wide audience on what is essentially a mock campaign trail. While DeSantis’s first book, Dreams from Our Founding Fathers: First Principles in the Age of Obama (2011), was not a wild hit, it did allow the budding politician to speak before groups that sometimes numbered in the hundreds. These appearances, he writes in The Courage to Be Free (2023), let him hone his message and helped to “indirectly pave the way” for his Congressional run in 2012.

The act of publishing can also be a mark of seriousness. “You’re not a real candidate, Pinocchio, if you haven’t written your own book,” former ABC News political director Mark Halperin once said. Of course, there is usually little need for the candidates to actually write the books. As Ronald Reagan told reporters at a press conference in his publisher’s office in 1990, “I hear it’s a terrific book! One of these days I’m going to read it myself.” But the best-remembered books stand out from the pack because they take risks or play with form. John F. Kennedy’s often-mimicked Profiles in Courage (1956) gathered stories about a range of allegedly heroic politicians from Daniel Webster to Robert Taft, while connecting Kennedy and honor in the reading public’s mind. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, influenced by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, is an unavoidable touchstone for contemporary politicians, given the loving praise it received from critics for its honesty and lyricism — mostly as Obama rose to national prominence, years after the book was originally published in 1995.

Recent campaign books take fewer risks, and instead fall safely along the spectrum that includes what might be called the argument book, the stump speech book, and the advice book. The argument is like the opening statement at a televised debate: sound-bite evidence that a candidate has a vision for the country. The stump speech, by contrast, draws on all the elements of a state fair podium-pounder: biography, anecdote, folksy phrasing, and cohesive narrative. The advice book purports to offer its readers guidance based on lessons learned by its author. It is perhaps unsurprising that the moribund Republican primary candidates — who failed to excite much interest on the actual campaign trail — have similarly neglected to prove compelling on the page. 

Vivek Ramaswamy’s latest book comes closest to being the exception. His offering is this cycle’s truest example of an argument book, and the only one that even begins to provide a reason for its author’s presence in the national spotlight. Viewers hypnotized by Ramaswamy’s unnerving eye contact and techno-confidence on the debate stage will find an even more potent dose of chutzpah in Capitalist Punishment (2023), a book about the dangers of corporate ethics. Ramaswamy’s latest comes on the heels of two other successful tomes on wokeness, Woke, Inc. (2021) and Nation of Victims (2022). In Capitalist Punishment, Ramaswamy, a much-hyped biotech financier, asserts that corporations focus too much on ESG — environmental, social, and governance issues that are unrelated to shareholder value. He believes, essentially, that Chevron should worry about drilling for oil rather than about putting women on its board or preparing for green energy transitions. This is the sole subject of the newbie politico’s 215-page book. Ramaswamy conjures up a fever dream of acronyms — AUM, CSR, SRI — that will be legible mostly to Fox News viewers and finance bros who think climate change won’t actually be that bad. It’s not exactly a populist screed designed to excite millions: among the book’s detours are intricate points about New York City Comptroller Brad Lander and the board of CalPERS, the California public employees’ retirement system. Ramaswamy recommends asking your financial advisor, “At any time in the last five years, have I invested in any funds that voted my shares in favor of racial equity audits?” He rarely leavens this relatable subject with biographical storytelling, or even memorable anecdotes. 

This cycle’s GOP books don’t do much to elevate the stump subgenre, either. Take South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s America, a Redemption Story, which unspools long passages about his love of football and memories of watching wrestling with his grandfather, alongside a harrowing scene in which his soon-to-disappear father chain-smokes while driving a young, asthmatic Scott across Kincheloe Air Force Base. There are emotional moments here, but Scott is unable to do much more than sigh about them as he embraces the kind of bland hope and faith that the book suggests will cure, as if by magic, most of America’s ills, including racism. A section titled “What Can Bring Change?” skips over concrete suggestions before concluding, “There is hope. There is love. There is redemption.” Scott notes the twenty-plus times he has been pulled over for “driving while black,” which he says made him feel “humiliated, angry, belittled.” But policy interventions aimed at avoiding such instances of abuse are mostly absent. Instead, Scott draws on banal memories, like the time he won a student government election by shouting into the mic, “Who wants a free lunch for everyone!” Yet he does not seem to have assimilated this story’s potential lessons: that elections are popularity contests, and that people vote for candidates they think will materially improve their lives. Before he dropped out of the race in November, Scott mostly promised voters empty positivity, riding on support from big donors who are hardly in touch with the GOP base.

DeSantis’s The Courage to Be Free falls approximately halfway between an argument and a stump book, though he is not particularly revelatory in either register. The general tone is self-congratulatory, as when DeSantis claims that “after a couple years as governor, the number one thing people would say when they came up to me was, simply, ‘Thank you.’” He’s least wooden when he writes about his genuinely stellar baseball career, which took him from a Little League World Series to batting .100 higher than former President George H.W. Bush at Yale to playing so hard in the lead-up to a Congressional baseball game that he had to get shoulder surgery. The book includes a closer reading of the Revolutionary period — he quotes The Federalist Papers in five different chapters — than most of DeSantis’s 1776-pilled colleagues offer. But his basic impulse is to lean hard into the culture wars on everything from Covid to Disney to protecting “biological women in athletics,” contending that the state of Florida can serve as a model for the rest of the United States. “People throughout our country and across the globe looked to Florida as a citadel of freedom in a world gone mad,” he writes in his introduction. 

Sporting a bright teal cover without the usual promotional headshot and featuring the upbeat subtitle “Leadership Lessons from Bold Women,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Haley’s If You Want Something Done looks like it’s masquerading as self-help. Yet the reader may catch a little politicking between the platitudes. In a pale imitation of JFK’s famous book, Haley presents pocket profiles of ten great women. She opens each with two epigraphs, the first from the chapter’s subject and the second from herself, putting Haley on the same footing as her chosen icon. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s chapter begins with, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman” — the quote from which Haley not-so-subtly draws her title, and which she follows with her own sage words on why she wears high heels. “It’s not for a fashion statement,” she writes. “It’s because if I see something wrong, we’re going to kick ’em every single time.” The profiles — of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, aviator Amelia Earhart, etc. — tend to be of uncomplicatedly steely women who persevere through suffering. The writing all takes the same form, too, with a little historical information acting as the sugar to spoon us some Haley trivia. In her chapter on Jeane Kirkpatrick, the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Haley writes that the international body “reminded her of high school,” with “the cliques, the rumors, the popular kids and the loners, the bullies and the bullied.” Before reading about the Olympian sprinter Wilma Rudolph, we shuffle through an explanation of how Haley’s amateur running habit is indicative of her refusal to submit to difficulties: “Don’t let others — or yourself — limit what you are capable of.” Despite her calls for female empowerment (“don’t ever underestimate the power of your voice”), Haley takes pains to distance herself from contemporary feminists. “Somewhere along the way, feminism got twisted,” she writes. “It is now used as a political club to browbeat people into sticking to a preapproved script.” No preapproved scripts for Haley, who nevertheless tells us that the U.S. was right to move its embassy to Jerusalem and that America is beset by “woke madness.” 

Go Home for Dinner: Advice on How Faith Makes a Family and Family Makes a Life (2023) offers up a few real insights about Mike Pence. The former vice president’s allies have dismissed reporting that he calls his wife “mother,” but here we learn that he refers to her as “Hummingbird” when discussing matters of reproduction (specifically their struggles with infertility). The book underscores just how much Pence’s life is saturated by Christianity: a favorite Friday night game with his kids was “you need a cross to get across,” in which they traced a white cross on the floor with flour and tried to step on nothing but the white while navigating the space. “It was a helpful illustration of how we are separated from God because of our sins and we need the cross of Jesus Christ to reach Him,” Pence explains. This is the guiding social philosophy of a candidate for whom banning abortion even for nonviable pregnancies is merely an entry-level ideo-theological goal. His evangelical thinking is present even on vacation, as when Pence drives through a national park with his family calling things “glorious” instead of “beautiful”; his kids know that’s “because it’s not just beautiful, Dad. It’s because it gives glory to the one who made it.” And of course, faith guides work as much as leisure: “God called us into politics,” Pence writes. 

Pence’s previous book, So Help Me God (2022), had at least a few interested readers: it drew the attention of the special-counsel investigators looking into 2020 election interference. They grilled Pence about his comma choice in a passage in which he claims he told Trump, “You know, I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome” of the election. According to ABC, Pence allegedly told the investigators that the comma was not supposed to be there. What he meant, he insisted, was the more forceful, “You know I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome.” That alternate phrasing painted Pence in a better light and, crucially, suggested that Trump had known all along that Pence couldn’t throw him the race.

In Go Home for Dinner, Pence sidesteps the topic of January 6 by turning the pen over to his daughter, Charlotte Pence Bond, who was at the Capitol with him that day. As the chaos unfolded, she writes, she made “a comment about the president that I quickly regretted,” calling Trump’s actions “unforgivable.” Mother Pence immediately corrected her — because their faith commands forgiveness. Are we supposed to glean that Pence, too, forgives Donald Trump? Has he let go of any anger over the former president’s false claims that Pence could swing the election his way? Is he upset that, on January 6, Trump riled up a crowd that hanged Pence in effigy before breaking into his place of work? Such forgiveness would be Christian, and politically and morally fascinating, but instead of giving a definitive answer, Pence disappears from his own story. He refracts the election interference chaos through the safer terrain of family. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk provoking more vitriol as his own 2024 bid heated up. But he needn’t have worried — he was already out of the race by the time the book hit shelves in November.


Pence is not the only one of these candidate-authors to get squirmy about Trump. All write in his shadow; Trump is simultaneously the antagonist and the symbol of the party, the favorite of its base. With the exception of Ramaswamy, whose latest book is more concerned with the corporate than the electoral world, all of the Republican candidates walk a wary line between showing respect for and distancing themselves from Trump and his movement. They are careful to highlight moments in which they were praised by Trump or worked closely with him. DeSantis insists on his “good relationship with the president.” Haley recounts telling Trump that she wanted to keep speaking her mind as U.N. ambassador. (“To President Trump’s credit, he replied, ‘That’s exactly why I want you to do this.’”) 

Even when the candidates are critical of the former president, they are always sure to soften the blow. In one particularly knotted passage, Scott rehashes his disapproval of Trump’s line that there were “fine people on both sides” of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Scott then spends pages recalling how “stunned” and “shocked” he was that Trump called him up to talk all this out, really listened to him — and perhaps borrowed his idea for opportunity zones, a tax benefit meant to help poor areas that incidentally also enriched developers and Trump’s family and friends. The verdict? “I know the man, and I can tell you firsthand how much he cares about this country.”

Christie, meanwhile, calls Trump his “friend,” writing that he was the first major officeholder to endorse Trump. He also jokes about Trump’s lack of seriousness, evinced when Trump offered him the ambassadorship to Italy because his mother was Italian. “I don’t think the analysis went any deeper than that,” Christie writes. Yet he can’t fully escape or exorcize Trump. In one of the strangest passages of Republican Rescue, he remembers that Trump teased him about bringing a briefcase to a meeting. “What’s with the briefcase,” Trump harumphs. “Are we going to take notes?” When Christie does later pull out a legal pad, Trump continues to rib him. “Here we go. We’re gonna do business now. Chris is taking his notes out.” Christie presents the episode as an illustration of Trump’s freewheeling and chaotic style. But the fact that he can’t forget the teasing — and repeats the story for his readers — shows just how deeply and accurately Trump is able to get into his rivals’ heads.

Inadvertently, these books also draw attention to what makes Trump so engaging, enraging, and unavoidable. DeSantis’s culture-war posturing falls flat because he’s nowhere near as entertaining as Trump. What use is DeSantis’s dull anti-masking take (“I was skeptical that masks would provide the protection that the public health establishment claimed, but I was adamant that a mask mandate was not an appropriate use of government power”) when Trump had already earned headlines with more memorably phrased lines on the same subject? “Sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk,” Trump said in 2020, “wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself.” A book of advice, like Haley’s or Pence’s? Trump did that already, on the only thing Americans really care about — “the art of the deal,” a title that, even decades later, has earned Trump tens of thousands of dollars in royalties a year. Ramaswamy tries to interest readers in finance, but Trump has written about business in much more digestible prose. 

Of course, Trump has produced campaign books, too. There’s a lot to learn about him in one of his early entries in the genre, The America We Deserve, composed when he was flirting with a Reform Party run for the presidency in 2000. With its dark warnings about terror and crime waves, and passages on abortion and single-payer health care, it previews the enduring obsessions and policy flip-flops to come. (At the time, he called himself pro-choice and noted that “Canadians live longer and healthier than Americans.”) 

That book came out soon after one-time Republican presidential contender turned Reform Party hopeful Pat Buchanan’s own book A Republic, Not an Empire was criticized as soft on Nazis. (“Pat Buchanan insists controversial book not pro-Hitler,” reads a representative CNN headline.) Trump repeatedly reminds his reader of that story, zeroing in on and exploiting a politically devastating weakness, just as he did with his opponents in 2016. The book highlights Trump’s main political talent — his willingness to be confident, dumb, and also a little funny. Explaining his support for capital punishment, for instance, he writes, “To point out the extremely obvious, 100 percent of the people who are executed never commit another crime.” It is a perfect campaign book, combining the best of the argument and the stump to provide both a policy blueprint (being tough on crime, stopping terrorism, disarming North Korea) and an amusing, apolitical personal voice. Yet it got him nowhere at the time.


That kind of occupational hazard haunts the 2024 books. Running through most of them is an anxiety about their own production. “Why write a memoir now?” Tim Scott asks. The pages that follow never really answer the question or overcome the genre’s biggest obstacle. The establishment that once gave campaign books the nod of approval no longer really exists. Do any undecided voters really watch Meet the Press? Do the editors and reporters who used to scour these books and anoint candidates accordingly matter in a world of declining print circulation and gargantuan political spending? Campaigns now devote huge resources to social media, video ads, and a few big, clippable rallies. All of these are financed by big donor events, mass emails, and endless call time — all largely independent of the old, imperfect institutions that used to be part of the machine that inches individuals towards the presidency. 

It’s possible that all candidates really get out of their forays into literature is money. The Trump era has been good for political books, after all: consider the insatiable demand that helped Michael Wolff’s gossipy Trump White House portrait Fire and Fury sell over a million copies. Ahead of the 2020 primary, Democratic candidates like Harris and Elizabeth Warren received six-figure book advances and made best sellers lists. Scott’s slim book earned him more than his yearly senatorial salary; Pence signed a multimillion dollar two-book deal; Ramaswamy’s financial disclosures show him making hundreds of thousands of dollars from his books. 

Characteristically, Trump seems more aware than most that campaign books are, above all, a money game. His publication this cycle likely took even less work than a ghostwritten volume. It’s a coffee table book called Letters to Trump, and it begins with an approximately fifty-word note from Richard Nixon, in which he explains that his wife, Pat, had seen Trump on the Donahue Show and “predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!” The book goes on to include pro forma thank-yous from celebrities sent during the years before Trump’s presidential run, printed alongside captions in which he engages in some typical score-settling with old foes. The most important part of the whole endeavor seems to be the price tag: $99 for the 320-page book, $399 for a signed edition. The publisher, incidentally, is an outfit called Winning Team, of which Donald Trump Jr. is a cofounder. “You do a GREAT job!” the former president writes in the acknowledgements, finally offering some praise to the offspring who is always seeking it. This is actually Trump’s second post-White House coffee table book. The first, a collection of photographs of his time in office, reportedly hit twenty million dollars in sales in a matter of months. 

There is a certain shamelessness in the bid to make a buck through photocopying, but it’s not as if the rest of the GOP cohort offers much more value, even at lower price points. It is telling that none in this year’s cohort have come close to being as popular or lucrative as Trump’s books. How could they have? The books were written, in the hoary tradition of the genre, in search of a broad American public that, in our fractured moment, does not quite exist. In the future, increasingly stage-managed candidates — or those who are already entertainment professionals — may see less and less political benefit from the exercise. Voters already know the biographies of anyone who gets close to the presidency, and a candidate’s blunt, hacky stances can be more effectively parceled elsewhere. For any particularly important political messages, future candidates can always do what Trump is already doing, in yet another plot to stuff his pockets: put the junk on Truth Social.

Mark Chiusano is the author of The Fabulist, a George Santos biography, and the story collection Marine Park, a PEN/Hemingway Award honorable mention. He is a former Newsday columnist, and his writing has appeared in places like The New York Times, New York, Politico, and The Paris Review.