The accepted benchmark for colossal tactical imbecility is the British military high command in World War I.

Their nonchalant self-sabotage was perfectly captured by this exchange in the TV series Blackadder Goes Forth. Informed that Field Marshall Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan, Blackadder wonders if it involves "us climbing out of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy" - in other words, doing what has been tried, with calamitous consequences, 18 times already.

That's what makes it so brilliant, he's told: "We'll catch the watchful Hun totally off guard. Doing precisely what we've done 18 times before is exactly the last thing they'll expect us to do."

But it's time to pass the clown's hat on to the Republican Party establishment whose plan for stopping Donald Trump was even more counter-intuitive, even less likely to succeed and ended in even more predictable failure. While urging the party faithful not to vote for Trump because he's a horrible human being who's not fit to be president, the hierarchy offered as an alternative the most despised person in US politics: Ted Cruz.

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What's more, in promoting Cruz the party bigwigs were asking voters to take a bitter medicine they were deeply reluctant to swallow themselves.

Republican Congressman Pete King declared he'd take cyanide if Cruz became president. Just days ago, recently retired Speaker of the House John Boehner - bear in mind the speaker is third in line, behind the president and vice-president, in the order of succession - described Cruz as "the most miserable son of a bitch I've ever worked with" and "Lucifer in the flesh".

To evangelical Christians, who make up a significant portion of the Republican base and who believe there's such a place as hell and the devil is ultimately responsible for all the evil in the world, being Satan himself is presumably even worse than supporting gay marriage.

Cruz's loathsomeness seems to be like nuclear contamination: it affects every living thing and lasts a lifetime. His fellow students from 30 years ago hate him just as much now as they did then. And with good reason: when a Princeton classmate told Cruz her parents couldn't afford to have any more children "he became vicious and made it personal [telling me] my mother was going to hell and was a whore".

It's worth noting that people don't detest Cruz because of his ideological stance, extreme as that is: the likes of King and Boehner broadly agree with much of what he stands for. As his Princeton roommate put it: "99 per cent of why I hate him is just his personality. If he agreed with me on every issue, I'd hate him only 1 per cent less."

So the Republicans' cunning plan for stopping Trump boiled down to this: "Don't vote for him - he's an absolute prick. Vote for Ted over here - he's the biggest prick under the sun."

Of course the party hierarchy would argue they didn't make it a choice between Trump and Cruz, the voters did. They provided 17 options and the party faithful whittled them down to the demagogue and the devil.

But if they're all duds, it doesn't matter how many there are to choose from: it's really no choice at all. Before Cruz, the establishment backed Jeb Bush. Only seven years have passed since his brother left the White House: did they really think people have already forgotten George W and his disastrous legacy?

Then there was - briefly - Ben Carson. At least with Trump you can see why he's running for president: untrammelled ego and ambition. In the candidates' debates, Carson gave the impression of being someone who, having never had a coherent political thought in his life, went to the toilet, took a wrong turn and ended up on stage with the 16 real candidates. Rather than embarrass him, they went along with the pretence that he was meant to be up there. Alternatively, you could ask: if the party faithful whittled the field down to two of the most obnoxious living Americans, what does that say about the party faithful?

We're venturing into the unknown. There have been demagogues in American politics before, but none became a major party's presidential candidate.

This will be a test of America. Does it still aspire to be, as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "the shining city on a hill"? Or does it want to wither into its worst self: a mean, greedy, insular, stupid, bigoted bully?

Debate on this article is now closed.