Ever since Donald Trump incited an assault on the Capitol, got impeached for it, found himself deplatformed by social media companies and finally decamped the White House for Mar-a-Lago, an odd split-screen effect has taken hold.

On one screen, our former president has basically disappeared. You hear occasional noises about him forming a “MAGA Party” and threatening primaries against Republicans who were insufficiently slavish toward his corrupt designs, but for now he’s just gone from public life.

On the other screen, many Republicans are acting as if he still looms over them as menacingly as ever. They are offering the absolute minimum in criticism of his months-long assault on our democracy while still carefully managing their every word, as if terrified, in Stockholm syndrome fashion, of a Trumpian Twitter barrage that will never come.

Case in point: Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations under Trump. She has now offered an absolute howler, essentially casting Trump as a victim of the aftermath of the insurrection, arguing: “Give the man a break!”

This is generating a lot of well-deserved mockery. But it also illustrates the strange hold Trump continues to exercise over the GOP. And it highlights what looks like a bizarre retreat from holding Trump accountable, even just rhetorically, that’s underway among many Republicans, including establishment-oriented ones.

Haley, arguing against the impeachment of Trump on Fox News, did allow that Jan. 6 was a “tough day” and that Trump’s actions since the election were “not his finest.”

That’s incredibly mild to begin with. But Haley continued: “Does he deserve to be impeached? Absolutely not.”

“I don’t even think there’s a basis for impeachment,” Haley said, adding: “They beat him up before he got into office. They’re beating him up after he leaves office. At some point, I mean, give the man a break!"

Give the man a break! Ever since he launched his unprecedented effort to corrupt and steal a presidential election, which included co-opting large swaths of the government toward nefarious ends, trying to invalidate millions of Americans’ votes based on fictions, pressuring state officials to overturn certified results, and inciting a violent assault on the seat of government that may have almost led to outright assassinations, Trump has been through absolute hell!

Trumpism is saturated with a toxic combination of victimization and cultish deification of Trump (who is himself cast as the chief victim in all sorts of situations), but this really takes it to rock bottom.

What’s so striking here is that Haley was actually cleaning up for her earlier criticism of Trump. Earlier in the interview, Fox’s Laura Ingraham confronted Haley by pointing out that she had previously said Trump would be “judged harshly” for the assault. Haley actually offered this as a kind of backpedal.

Worse still, Haley is supposed to be a rising star who might run in 2024 as a non-Trumpist Republican. As the conservative blogger Allahpundit points out, even the less Trumpy Republicans, those who fancy themselves serious conservatives, are capitulating to the notion that Trump and his coalition are largely being victimized by efforts to hold him accountable for inciting an insurrectionist assault on the Capitol:

When Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 House Republican, came out for impeachment, it looked as though there might be a more serious effort by Republicans to move the party away from Trump.

But since then, we’ve seen a whole lot of retreat. House leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has backtracked on his previous heresy that Trump was partly responsible for the attack; he’s now claiming Trump didn’t “provoke” the violence and is even hailing him for continuing to “have that ability to lead this party.”

Meanwhile, relatively less Trumpy Republicans such as Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) are saying things like this:

“He exhibited poor leadership, I think we all agree with that. But it was these people that came into the Capitol, they did it knowingly. So they bear the responsibility.”

They bear the responsibility, never mind that extensive video examined by Just Security and by ProPublica shows unambiguously that many rioters were expressly trying to carry out what they correctly understood to be Trump’s instructions to them.

And on Tuesday, all but five Senate Republicans voted for a doomed effort to kill the impeachment effort before Trump has to face a Senate trial.

Why is it so hard for so many Republicans, including the ostensibly responsible ones, to concede forthrightly that President Biden’s victory was legitimately earned, that Republicans were wrong for going to such great lengths to enable Trump’s lies about the election’s illegitimacy, that those lies are what inspired the attack, and that Trump should be held accountable for it?

Early on Jan. 6, The Post's Kate Woodsome saw signs of violence hours before thousands of former president Donald Trump loyalists besieged the Capitol. (The Washington Post)

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