Via MFP, six months after the birth of Trumpmania, this is what finally raised a red flag? Trump arguing that Cruz is a bit of a “maniac” for taking on the entire Senate when it might pose a problem for a president who’ll need friends in Congress to help him pass his agenda?

Guy Benson wrote this last week about Trump’s many admirers in conservative talk radio:

Here’s how the coy game has worked: When Trump is right, they praise him. Fine. When Trump is factually wrong, while making an argument that may contain a “larger truth,” they justify his inaccuracies. When Trump lies, they deflect and excuse. And when Trump does something indefensible, they side-step the substance, resorting to marveling at how masterful he is at “driving a narrative,” playing the media, and aggravating all the ‘right’ people. Sure, he may be a sloppy, impulsive, non-conservative ignoramus on actual policy, but at least “he fights” in a manner that gratifies our audience’s political id; plus, “without him, we wouldn’t even be talking about [fill in the blank]!” There’s never an explicit endorsement, mind you, just loads of adulation. And airtime.

A nice description of how things have worked so far, but not today. Rush could have left it at calling Trump’s attack a “huge mistake” but he goes so far here as to say that if you think Trump’s a “genuine conservative,” which apparently some people do, this should probably cure you of that notion.

Often on Twitter lately you’ll find righties urging Cruz to hit Trump for being an egregious RINO and nearly as often you’ll find Cruz fans responding with, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? A Trump/Cruz fight would be quite a boost for your boy Rubio.” Cruz himself alluded to that on Friday when he said “the establishment” wants a cage match between him and Trump. Some do, sure, and as soon as Cruz is finished with taking down Trump, they’ll turn on Cruz as also unacceptably “extreme” and start pushing Rubio. But some Trump critics want Cruz to engage, I think, because they believe that’s the only way to get conservative opinion-makers to finally start targeting Trump, which might loosen his hold on some of the tea partiers who prefer him (for the moment). It’s not about boosting Rubio, it’s just about finishing Trump. He could finish himself off and “prove” he’s a RINO by attacking a true-conservative sacred cow, but there’s no reason to think he will at this point. Trump’s been pretty savvy about passing the right’s major litmus tests: He’ll cross them on a boutique issue like eminent domain but on cultural meat-and-potatoes subjects like abortion, guns, and Christianity (the Bible’s the only book ever written that’s better than his own, you know), he toes the line. He’s not going to go out there and say that Ronald Reagan was a terrible president. He has a decent enough sense of what’s disqualifying in the primary and what isn’t.

The other way to “prove” he’s a RINO is to have him go to war with a populist conservative hero. The problem is that Trump himself is now a populist hero for some conservatives, which means other heroes like Rush are risking RINO accusations if they take him on. (“How much is the establishment paying you to attack Donald?”) That’s how you end up with the phenomenon Benson wrote about, where Rush is out there day after day praising Trump while taking care never to endorse him or to claim that the Trump policy du jour is a good “conservative” plan. If Trump attacks Rush or Sarah Palin or some other talk radio star, he risks losing some conservative cred. If Rush attacks Trump, he risks losing some populist cred. Everyone benefits from playing nice. The crucial exception is Ted Cruz, who’s competing with Trump for the same job and can’t avoid a conflict with him. Cruz is holding off because he understands the point about losing populist cred by questioning Trump’s conservatism and thinks he can win Iowa without attacking. Trump, who’s now behind there and who sees Cruz creeping up in other polls, either feels he can’t wait any longer to attack or he thinks that he’ll pay no price for doing so. Today’s jab is Rush’s polite way, I assume, of urging him to rethink that. Populist opinion-makers will stay out of Trump’s way so long as he’s not attacking conservatism or its leading avatars. Once he forces them to choose, they’ll choose and he won’t like the choice. After years of Bushes and McCain and Romneys, they’re not going to knife a brilliant ideological conservative with a real chance at the nomination like Ted Cruz just because some listeners are jazzed about Trump’s temporary ban on Muslims.

In fact, the audio only gives you a taste of what Rush said about Trump today. He objected to the “maniac” attack on Cruz because it was an establishment argument, but he objected to what Trump said about ethanol and affirmative action on more traditional grounds:

And then he dumped on Cruz for being opposed to ethanol? In other words, we as Republicans must support government subsidies to corn farmers in Iowa if we’re to have any chance of winning Iowa? We’ve gotta stand for subsidies? And that, again, is not a conservative position. To go after Cruz on that basis, is again the way the Democrats and the media would go after him, and then there was this Sunday morning on CNN’s State of the Union, Jake Tapper.

“What do you think of Justice Scalia’s remarks, and where are you today on affirmative action?”

TRUMP: I thought it was very tough to the African-American community, actually. I don’t like what he said. I actually saw it in print, and I’m going… I read a lot of stuff. I’m going, “Whoa.” I have great African-American friendships. I have just amazing relationships. But, yeah, I was very surprised at Scalia’s statements, actually.

RUSH: Well, they weren’t “Scalia’s statements.” They were arguments that had been submitted to the court that he was engaging in oral argument over. But these are two things that… If you’re a conservative voter in the Republican primary, these two things have gotta raise some red flags for you people, I would think.

That’s not a formal endorsement of Cruz over Trump but it’s clear which of the two a good conservative should prefer. (Should a good conservative also prefer Rubio to Trump?) Presumably more of this is in store for Trump if he continues to attack, including/especially at the debate tomorrow night. That raises the price for him. Is attacking still worth doing now with Iowa nearly two months away?