Okay, admit it. You’ve probably thought the Republican presidential race couldn’t sink any lower at least once a week since last July. The steady stream of outrageous statements uttered by the GOP frontrunner as well as his insults of rivals and critics may have numbed a lot of us to the vile nature of discourse in the age of Donald Trump. When Marco Rubio briefly got into the act with stupid schoolyard taunts in a vain effort to get a little of the attention Trump got, the result didn’t help the Florida senator. But it continues to work for Trump.

Some may have thought that Trump’s frontrunner status and then his huge delegate lead that makes him the likely nominee would cause him to clean up his act. Nothing doing. In the last week, just as the stop Trump movement seemed to be running out of hope, the reality television star not only didn’t tone his comments down, he’s gotten worse with a shocking attack on Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi that should have been beneath even the low standards the Donald has set throughout a life of scandal. But after doubling down at that disgusting ploy, now a new development has further mired the GOP contest in the mud.

This concerns a National Enquirer story alleging that Ted Cruz has had affairs with five different women. Cruz believes Trump’s people helped plant the story and given the real estate mogul’s connections the suspicion is not unreasonable. More to the point, Trump’s media apologists are using it to try and change the subject from their candidate’s atrocious behavior, smearing not only Cruz but also the women involved. Cruz denies it unequivocally, but the sly smirks of Trump surrogates claiming that it might be true shows that the damage is done regardless of its merits. The tendency of the media to blame both sides in disputes that don’t involve one of their liberal heroes or heroines, as is the case with a lot of the coverage of the attack on Heidi Cruz, also helps Trump.

In other words, it’s a classic Trump tactic. Drown your opponent in accusations and innuendo. Call them a liar even if you’re the one that hasn’t stopped lying about policy questions or personal attacks since you entered the race. Put them on the defensive and get the media talking about the attacks in a way that gives you free media and hurts everyone else. When it’s proved to be all a lie, just move on pretend you had nothing to do with it.

This is the sort of no-holds-barred politics that makes the brawls of big city machine hacks in an earlier, rougher era of American history look like Plato’s Republic. It also ought to disqualify Trump or anyone who plays this game even without the pretense of an attack dog or buffers between the slime and the candidate. But nothing, not even the most dishonorable sort of smear, is enough to convince Trump supporters that there is something wrong with embracing a man without principle or a trace of personal honor.

We already know that Trump’s backers like his wild statements because they see his willingness to offend as a revolt against the plague of political correctness that has cast a pall on our society. Yet their applause for these horrible attacks on opponents, which seem to have grown in ferocity and viciousness even as his command of the race seems assured, is something different. The winks and nods coming from the Trump fan base today about what their man is doing to the Cruz family aren’t about him showing them he can say things they can’t and still get away with it. Rather, Trump voters like his ability to sink as low as can be imagined because they think it is a sign that he will fight and win.

This trait has appeal to many on the right because they believe their side hasn’t played to win in recent years. It is an article of faith among the GOP grass roots that President Obama bulldozed the Republican Congressional leadership. They think the same about Mitt Romney because, like Trump, they buy into the myth that the 2012 presidential race was the Republicans race to lose even though the opposite was the case.

It’s true that Obama has often gotten the best of Capitol Hill Republicans but not always. But the reason why conservatives haven’t gotten their way, especially since the 2014 midterms, is the fault of the Constitution, not weak-willed GOP politicians. No one wins in divided government though a president can always use the power of the executive branch in a way that can’t be matched by the Congress.

But Trump’s bare-knuckled, down and dirty approach to politics gives a lot of people on the right the idea that there is no battle he can’t win. Having seen even straight-arrow Republicans like Romney slimed by a liberal mainstream media, they long to see Trump attack Democrats with the same ferocity. If innocent people get hurt or lies are told, they seem prepared to think that the ends justify the means. Trump’s endless yapping about “winning” may stem from his own insecurities and shallow understanding of the issues. But it also speaks to the desire of many conservatives to see their opponents not merely beaten but humbled and disgraced. In a reality television era when sportsmanship, good manners and dignity are considered eccentric relics of a bygone past, Trump’s soulless personal attack machine is seen by some as an indispensable asset; not a character trait that ought to disqualify a man to assume the mantle of Washington and Lincoln.

But the problem with the Trump fans’ expectations is that there may actually be a limit as to how low the American people are prepared to see their political culture go. But even if we think the culture is already a lost cause, Trump’s predilection for attacking and degrading women or minorities is not likely to help Republicans win the groups that cost them the 2012 election. For every angry white male who likes the way Trump brawls, there may be a suburban mother who might have voted for the Republicans this year but won’t so long as Trump is at the top of the ticket.

Just as important, Trump needs to understand that although Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate, the more she is personally attacked the more sympathetic she’s going to appear. Hitting below the belt may have secured Trump a strong plurality in GOP primaries, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good showing in a general election. As the polls of head-to-head matchups consistently illustrate, Hillary Clinton slaughters Trump even as she loses to the other Republicans.

Trump fans think that once he starts swinging away at her rather than Ted Cruz that will change. They think his mentions of Bill Clinton’s behavior will excuse everything he does or says. But the formula won’t work because once he’s the nominee and matched up against Democrats, he will start getting the same treatment other GOP candidates have received and then some. The stop at nothing approach to politics has its limits and Trump may be about to reach them. With women and minorities turning out just to vote against Trump the same way they came out for Obama that creates a hole that he can’t punch his way out of.

When that happens, those on the right that thought all they needed was a fighter will look for scapegoats and find them among those that have been pointing out Trump’s shortcomings. But the problem here is that as debased as our political culture may have become, it may not be yet low enough to elevate a man like Trump to the presidency.

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