The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Truth can defeat ‘gaslighting,’ the word of the year. But not always.

Donald Trump speaks remotely during the Republican Jewish Coalition Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 19. (David Becker for the Washington Post)

Merriam-Webster has chosen “gaslighting” as its Word of the Year for 2022. This is likely to surprise neither the perpetrators of gaslighting, who had yet another banner year, nor the rest of us trying to avoid being gaslit.

The term goes back to the 1938 play “Gaslight” and the subsequent film version. It originally referred to someone trying to convince you that you are going mad and cannot trust what’s in front of your eyes, but today it has come to mean any act of misleading someone.

These days we’re being gaslit more than ever. And while the truth can and does sometimes prevail, the cases where attempts at gaslighting have fallen short provide little comfort. When the truth wins, it’s only through an absolutely monumental effort, and by the skin of its teeth.

Take the 2022 elections. Despite efforts to foment electoral chaos by Donald Trump and devotees of the lie that voter fraud is widespread, the election went off remarkably smoothly. Most of the worst conspiracy theorists were rejected, and while a few dead-enders refuse to accept their defeats, they haven’t gotten much support.

But that wasn’t because of the irresistible power of the truth. It happened because election officials spent the past two years preparing for an assault. They did their jobs heroically, and election deniers were left without much raw material from which to spin their fantasies.

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Or take the recent struggles of Trump himself, the most prodigious liar in the history of American politics, if not that of the entire world. While he is still the leader of the GOP, more Republicans every day are making their distaste with him public, and he might actually be beaten in the 2024 primaries.

The mountain of fact-checks refuting him may have had an impact, but his fate will seemingly be decided by whether enough fellow Republicans worry he’s just a loser.

And while the despicable Alex Jones is finally being held accountable by the families to whom he did so much harm with his conspiracy theories about school shootings, it took years of courageous struggle by his victims to reach this point.

In none of these cases have the lies’ former or current advocates been convinced that there’s something inherently wrong with lying. The purveyors of gaslighting remain committed to all kinds of other lies: that guns have nothing to do with gun violence, that cutting taxes for the wealthy helps everyone, that the Constitution’s framers speak from beyond the grave in support of the entire Republican agenda, that we now have “open borders,” that Republicans care deeply about budget deficits, and so much more.

Undergirding all the gaslighting is the unfortunately correct belief that there is no particular cost anymore to being widely regarded as a liar. This goes against the guiding light of the enterprise of journalistic fact-checking: If you catch a politician in a lie and explain the facts, they’ll stop repeating it. But that proposition relies on shame, and Trump taught his party that shamelessness is a kind of superpower, liberating you to laugh at the fact-checkers and keep lying as long as you find it advantageous.

We have now seen that shamelessness has limits, but Republicans still share Trump’s faith in its power. And social media (including the new Twitter, which Elon Musk seems to be determined to turn into a sewer of hate and misinformation) provide lies a means to spread faster and wider than ever in human history.

Three centuries ago, Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” As ever, spreading a lie is easy, and beating it back is hard. Any fool can do the former, yet the latter takes care and effort.

The worst among us have the advantage in this battle, and they always will. If we never forget that, we can hope, from time to time, to defeat them.

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