LENOX >> On the morning after President Obama's hopeful, optimistic State of the Union valedictory address, a local acquaintance told me he had to turn the TV off after 15 minutes — he just couldn't stand it.

I can relate. After the first round of disjointed questions by Fox Business Network hosts on Thursday night, I had to hit the "off" switch as the Republican debaters vilified Obama and Hillary Clinton and traded verbal hostilities in what several pundits described as a circular firing squad.

Of course, I caught up with the rest of the debate via DVR, not wanting to shirk my "opposition research" responsibilities.

An uplifting experience, for sure, to see and hear former reality TV star and bankruptcy-prone business mogul Donald Trump — a far less qualified candidate for high office than elected officials Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann — acknowledge his deep-seated anger about everything.

And how inspiring to hear the dangerously clever Ted Cruz showcase his own hostility toward American values of open-mindedness and respect for fellow citizens, as well as his brutally cynical, slash-and-burn tactics that are hard to stomach even for many rock-ribbed conservatives.

Trump's international role models include Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, an apparent soul mate and admirer of the would-be U.S. President: "It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond," Trump said last month. Really. You can look it up.


The Republican front-runner has also voiced a bizarre form of admiration for the boyish North Korean despot Kim Jung-Un: "You've got to give him credit it's a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, he's the boss. It's incredible. He wiped out his uncle, he wiped out this one, that one," Trump told an Iowa rally last weekend, adding that he's a "maniac." One suspects that was meant as a term of endearment.

Cruz reminds me of a horror-show amalgam of Red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, far-right politician Patrick Buchanan who once called Hitler a genius and "an individual of great courage and extraordinary gifts, and segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, symbol of Southern racism at its worst.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in an extraordinary takedown this past week, wrote that "Cruz's speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them."

"Cruz lays down an atmosphere of apocalyptic fear. America is heading off 'the cliff to oblivion.' After one Democratic debate he said, 'We're seeing our freedoms taken away every day, and last night was an audition for who would wear the jackboot most vigorously.' "

Brooks, who tops my short list of compassionate conservative commentators, labeled Cruz's "apocalyptic diagnosis" as "ridiculous," manufacturing "an atmosphere of menace in which there is no room for compassion, for moderation, for anything but dismantling and counterattack."

Some of my progressive brethren remain in a state of denial about the prospects of a Trump nomination. Certainly, the civil war in the Republican party is raging ever more fiercely — current polls indicate that one-third of Republicans nationwide could not conceive of voting for him (29 percent say the same of Cruz).

A highly respected local businessman and self-described conservative told me recently that he could neither vote for Trump nor Clinton, and certainly not for the democratic socialist Sanders. He shook his head grimly when I suggested that sitting out a crucial national election is not an option.

This gentleman is far from alone. In a recent Times column, Peter Wehner, who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and as a speechwriter and adviser for George W. Bush, wrote that he could not vote for Trump nor for Clinton ("an ethical wreck").

"I would prefer to vote for a responsible third-party alternative; absent that option, I would simply not cast a ballot for president. A lot of Republicans, I suspect, would do the same," the senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative institute in Washington, D.C., opined.

Wehner stated that Trump would be "the most unqualified president in American history," never having served a day in public office or in the armed forces, as all other 44 presidents have.

Describing him as ignorant, erratic, inconsistent, unprincipled, crude, cruel, "disdainful of knowledge, indifferent to facts, untroubled by his benightedness," Wehner depicted the candidate's positions as "nativistic pipe dreams and public relations stunts."

"Mr. Trump's virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe," he asserted. "The prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief should send a chill down the spine of every American."

Wehner did acknowledge that "no votes have yet been cast, primary elections are fluid, and sobriety often prevails, Mr. Trump is hardly the inevitable Republican nominee. But, stunningly, that is now something that is quite conceivable. If this scenario comes to pass, many Republicans will find themselves in a situation they once thought unimaginable: refusing to support the nominee of their party because it is the best thing that they can do for their party and their country."

The most recent Republican debate can be viewed as a horror show, an entertaining circus act, or both. I have to admit that it was amusing, momentarily, to see the Canadian-born Cruz put down Trump's false "birther" assertions and his "New York values." Most New Yorkers, of course, despise Trump and all that he stands for.

But it's no laughing matter that one of these guys appears to be the likely Republican candidate and thus a potential U.S. president.

Contact Clarence Fanto with civil comments at cfanto@yahoo.com.