May 1, 2023 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
Saving democracy is a slow, deliberative process – and President Joe Biden is very, very good at it, writes Claire Bond Potter.
The following first appeared in Claire’s Political Junkie. –JS
After President Joe Biden’s official announcement this week that he would run in 2024, I bought my Joe Biden 2024 tee shirt: it has the Dark Brandon graphic you see above. The campaign website page where you can buy it advises: “Best worn while vanquishing Malarkey.”
Vanquishing malarkey is a big part of what Biden has done as president. It’s a big part of what many of us independent writers have been laser-focused on since Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2015. The lies and conspiracy theories the GOP has wedded itself to have caused much damage. Still, it is the malarkey that has disabled one of our two major political parties and fatally undermined our political culture.
Malarkey is also one of Joe Biden’s favorite words, a catchphrase almost, and — in addition to blowing kisses and shooting finger pistols — he has been using it on the national stage since at least 1983.
Words like malarkey are how Biden projects the image of a regular guy — a regular guy from, say, a middle Atlantic suburb in 1965. Many understand malarkey as a synonym for “lie,” but that is a mistake. For example, on a television appearance in 2014, as the ever-earnest Republican speaker, Paul Ryan, attacked the Obama administration’s handling of Benghazi (malarkey would fester and become a weapon against Hillary Clinton in 2016), Biden began to smile. Then smile more broadly. Then, as Ryan finished his stem-winder, Biden gave the camera a full-on set of his laughing, white choppers.
“With all due respect,” Biden said, “that’s a bunch of malarkey.”
If you listen to the video clip, Biden did not follow up by saying that Ryan was lying, but rather that “not a single word he says is accurate.” Sure, those were still the days when politicians didn’t openly call each other liars. But what Biden was characterizing with the word “malarkey” was the overall effect that Ryan was producing by cherry-picking events and administration statements out of context. The series of well-articulated, not unfactual, statements by this pleasant-sounding, sincere young conservative were not just untrue: they were designed to confuse and mislead the public more extensively.
In fact, as we go into the 2024 campaign cycle with a presidential incumbent, highlighting Biden as the “no malarkey” president might be a critical insight into how the Democrats plan to fight a disorganized, fractured Republican party that (if the pattern of the last two election cycles holds) has no platform and no policies beyond trying to end abortion, gender transition and the freedom to read.
But it is crucial to have a working definition of our keyword.
“Malarkey” describes a communication dynamic rather than false speech. As Trump’s 2016 strategist Steve Bannon would say, malarkey is a way to “flood the zone with shit.” According to Merriam-Webster, it emerged in the United States around 1923 and best translates as exaggerated, foolish, insincere or nonsense talk designed to deceive by obscuring the truth with word salad. Malarkey, in other words, may contain facts or individual assertions that are true but conveyed in such a way as to conceal the truth.
Although malarkey sounds Irish (indeed, there are apparently Irish people with the surname Malarkey and Mullarkey), the word was likely invented by an Irish-American boxing writer and political cartoonist named Thomas Aloysius (“Tad”) Dorgan. Dorgan began his career at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1902 and moved to the New York Journal in 1905. Repurposing words and phrases to describe modern phenomena was one of his talents. According to HL Menken, Dorgan was one of the top inventors of slang after 1900: he is said to be responsible for popularizing “applesauce” as a synonym for nonsense, “dumbbell” as slang for a stupid person (“Dumb Dora” for a stupid woman), and “hard-boiled” as a way for describing a tough guy.
The word malarky is, in many ways, a synonym for “bullshit,” a term that has not only been used with surprising frequency by journalists in describing Donald Trump but which Trump himself used publicly. During his presidency, he tweeted or retweeted the word 23 times. Often Trump used “bullshit” as a modifier in tweets about climate science, but usually as a predicate to another lie. For example, a Trump rebuttal to investigative reporting about his dubious business career and origins as a repo baby: “Bullshit — Pop gave me knowledge and a relatively small amount of money (split between brothers and sisters) and I built it into over 9 bill.”
Every time he uses the word malarkey, Biden reminds his audience that he is not the crude fat boy in a long red tie over there: he is a connection to a more decent political past where politicians didn’t cheat on and dump their wives, make dates with porn stars and then take the hush money as a tax deduction, and say things like “bullshit” and “grab ’em by the pussy.”
But part of what Biden offers a broad spectrum of voters, from moderate conservatives to independents to liberals, is consistency. He promises to make voters’ decisions simple by identifying the malarkey and redirecting them to national priorities, about cutting through the confusion, not creating it.
Biden is tapping into an upswell of desire among Americans for a political season and a presidency about reassurance, not fear. MAGA Republicanism’s daily shock and awe campaigns have not only pushed the norms of free speech to the limit, but they have also created unprecedented national jitters among a broad spectrum of Americans who want nothing more than to live their lives unthreatened. They want to cast a vote without worrying that bogus charges of election fraud will upend their communities. They want to go to Costco and know they will not bleed out in the condiments aisle. They want to send their children to school and know that their public school district will not be blown up by a front group backed by a rightwing PAC.
Donald Trump, then the MAGA media and political ecosystem that grew up around him, found that the greatest profits were to be found in turning neighbor against neighbor. This wasn’t unprecedented in American history, of course. But what was new was that the ideologies that the right was called to conquer were not only foreigners (immigrants, Soviet and Chinese sleeper cells, an international Jewish conspiracy) but other Americans whose freedoms — to exhibit race pride, gender or sexual nonconformity — are misrepresented as inherently ideological and politically threatening to the MAGA minority.
Today, gender, sexuality and race (what the right calls “woke”) are the new Marx. This is literally the case: among others, Vanderbilt University conservative political scientist Carol Swain (who is herself Black) has described critical race theory as “rooted in cultural Marxism; its purpose to divide the world into white oppressors and non-white victims.”)
These culture wars are, in a word, malarkey, a vast smokescreen designed to put people into office who don’t believe in government and have no intention of actually governing.
The Republican Party was initially stunned by Trump’s malarkey, then lined up behind him in 2016 on the assumption that he couldn’t possibly be serious. When it turned out he was, and the GOP cut its coat to the latest MAGA fashions, the party’s leadership failed to discern that, while the malarkey had only temporarily incapacitated the Democrats, it had caused them to lose sight of the fact that the only point of electoral politics is governing. In other words, if you don’t care what government does, you are better off starting a militia than running for office.
Biden has discerned that Republican malarkey has created fault lines, fragmented the party, and worn out the patience of voters, particularly independent and moderate conservatives, who value stability.
And this is not what the GOP plans to deliver as it offers us Trump or DeSantis in 2024. Instead, instability—January 6, the multiple civil and criminal suits faced by a former president who seems to have a hammerlock on the nomination and daily mass shootings, to name a few — is the anvil hanging around the GOP’s neck. As Peter Wehner wrote in The Atlantic this week:
Lack of restraint is the essence of the Trump movement. Shattering guardrails is what they find thrilling. But what MAGA adherents forget is that those guardrails exist to protect not only others, but also ourselves from excess, self-indulgence and self-harm. There’s a reason that temperance — self-mastery, the capacity to moderate inordinate desires, balance that produces internal harmony — is one of the four cardinal virtues.
The extremism, aggression and lack of restraint in MAGA world are spreading rather than receding. They are becoming more rather than less indiscriminate. Those who are part of that movement, and certainly those who lead it, act as if they’re invincible, as if the rules don’t apply to them, as if they can say anything and get away with anything. That has certainly been true of Trump, and it is often true of those who have patterned themselves after Trump, which is to say, virtually the entire Republican Party.
All of this is another version of malarkey.
Trump and his MAGA allies in the GOP have used these weapons to great effect, but in the end, there is a price to pay. You can’t mainline endless malarkey to your own voters and not have them wonder what the United States would look like if you had a president that just governed, passed legislation, and performed ceremonial duties with dignity and humor.
Someone like the president we already have.
Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.