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Larry Hackett: Donald Trump’s influence is wobbling, but he’s still a cult-like force

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Flesh wound, or fatal blow?

A break with the past, or even blinder allegiance?

A waste of time, or time-release triumph?

There’s a little something for everybody in Saturday’s Senate impeachment vote – a very different trial than the first impeachment of Donald Trump a year ago.

This time around, Democrats were far more confident of the legal, political and moral might of their case.

Whatever the merits of the Ukraine Shakedown impeachment of early 2020, it could never shed its partisan roots.

The Democrats’ assurance was evident in the masterful and harrowing video accounts House prosecutors played for senators last week.

These riveting “tick-tocks” transcended petty party score settling.

The fury and vengeance of the rioters, juxtaposed with Trump’s winking incitement, was even more upsetting than on Jan. 6.

It was all worse than we imagined.

Woe to those Republican candidates in the 2022 mid-term elections who will face these images again.

They are already iconic, and it’s hard to imagine them losing their power to disgust and disturb in less than two years.

Explaining how you still side with the guy who sparked that horror will be a tough sell.

Recognising that difficulty, seven Republican senators voted to impeach Trump and defy the majority of their GOP Senate colleagues.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell couldn’t bring himself to vote to impeach, but he did continue his weeks-long breakup with Trump, unloading on him again for his “disgraceful dereliction of duty.”

Even if McConnell’s personal disgust is genuine, as a party leader he’s trying to have things both ways.

Like his House of Representatives counterpart Kevin McCarthy, he’s trying to make room for pro- and anti-Trump members within the GOP.

Both men know Trump remains the cult-like force. And however much they may hanker for a party-wide deprogramming, they simply don’t have the influence right now to wrest power away from Trump and his acolytes.

But make no mistake: Trump’s influence is wobbling. As the Washington Post pointed out, no president in history faced as many defections as Trump did in the Senate impeachment vote.

He may have been acquitted, but the brief rambling defence mounted by his lawyers was only occasionally defiant.

Trump himself remains sidelined, unable to unleash a Twitter barrage that could stoke his supporters and enrage his enemies.

Trump, who was so completely of the moment while President, suddenly seems very much yesterday.

The belief that he was chiefly responsible for the insurrection was only cemented by the House prosecutors’ case. (His supporters barely bothered to argue otherwise, choosing to acquit on technical legal grounds instead.)

Among his many despicable acts, in particular his refusal to do anything while his loyal Vice President Mike Pence faced possible violence was seared on the nation’s conscience.

“I just don’t see how Donald Trump will be re-elected to the presidency again,” GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski said.

She’s not the only one sensing blood in the water. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former UN ambassador and a likely GOP presidential aspirant, told Politico that “we need to acknowledge (Trump) let us down”.

“He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

That Haley feels emboldened enough to break with her ex-boss is telling. Whether the GOP listens to voices like hers is the coming test.

The great irony of the GOP’s devotion to Trump has always been how unrequited it is: Trump cares nothing for the party, except for how it can advance him. Whether that’s any clearer after last week’s events remains to be seen.

Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America

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