Donald Quixote

It’s hard to write about the 45th President without starting a riot. I am about to compare him to Don Quixote and I can already hear both types of criticism. For the Trump supporters, this will be another personal attack using armchair psychology to demonize him. For the Trump critics, I will be taking a flawed but lovable character and attaching him to the devil. Quixote deserves better, they’ll say.

Since I am writing now about the early chapters of Cervantes’ novel, I would like everyone to detach a bit from our 2020 impressions of Donald Trump and think back to five years ago when he first rode down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy. The opening of Chapter II of “Don Quixote” reminds me so much of that ride:

And so, having completed these preparations, he did not wish to wait any longer to put his thoughts into effect, impelled by the great need in the world that he believed was caused by his delay, for there were evils to undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate, and offenses to rectify. And one morning before dawn on a hot day in July, without informing a single person of his intentions, and without anyone seeing him, he armed himself with all his armor and mounted Rocinante, wearing his poorly constructed helmet, and he grasped his shield and took up his lance and through the side door of a corral he rode out into the countryside with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.

At the time, he didn’t seem like a serious contender for the Presidency to anyone. He made some outlandish statements about Mexico sending their rapists to America and everyone assumed his campaign would soon flame out.

People forget now just how much liberals were enjoying the early days of the Trump candidacy, his racist attacks notwithstanding. Trump wasn’t playing by the rules, he was attacking the Republican frontrunners, especially Jeb Bush, relentlessly. He was giving out Lindsey Graham’s phone number on live television and opening up a civil war in the party by questioning John McCain’s war record. Democrats thought for sure that Trump wouldn’t win the Republican nomination, but he’d do tremendous damage to their unity in the process. This brings to mind the many characters who, seeing the madness in Quixote, humored his quest:

The innkeeper, as we have said, was rather sly and already had some inkling of his guest’s madness, which was confirmed when he heard him say these words, and in order to have something to laugh about that night, he proposed to humor him, and so he told him that his desire and request were exemplary and his purpose right and proper in knights who were as illustrious as he appeared to be and as his gallant presence demonstrated.

Those early days of the Trump campaign were covered with ferocious curiosity by all of the cable news networks. His rallies took over news cycles, no other candidates could find oxygen to survive. Republicans, at first aghast, began to warm to Trump as he rose in the polls. Democrats, feeling like they were watching a party self destruct, couldn’t pull themselves away from the spectacle. Quixote drew similar attention:

The innkeeper told everyone in the inn about the lunacy of his guest, about his standing vigil over his armor and his expectation that he would be dubbed knight. They marveled at so strange a form of madness and went to watch him from a distance, and saw that with a serene expression he sometimes paced back and forth; at other times, leaning on his lance, he turned his eyes to his armor and did not turn them away again for a very long time.

Quixote took his mad quest seriously. When some mule drivers approached the arms he was guarding (blocking the way to the well they needed to give their mules water to drink,) he treated them with contempt. He yelled to them:

“But you, filthy and lowborn rabble, I care nothing for you; throw, approach, come, offend me all you can, for you will soon see how perforce you must pay for your rash insolence.”

Quixote did everything but declare them “fake news.” And it had an effect:

He said this with so much boldness and so much courage that he instilled a terrible fear in his attackers, and because of this and the persuasive arguments of the innkeeper, they stopped throwing stones at him, and he allowed the wounded men to withdraw and resumed his vigil over his armor with the same serenity and tranquility as before.

Ok, that last part about serenity and tranquility bears no comparison to DJT, but the rest of it sounds a lot like the Trump modus operandi — attack, attack, attack. This earns Quixote a ceremony from the innkeeper where he is dubbed a knight. He then leaves the inn (which he believes is a castle) and goes off seeking adventure. In his first major confrontation, he threatens a landowner to stop flogging a peasant and to pay him all his owed back wages. The landowner agrees to Quixote’s terms and the knight rides off satisfied that he’s made Quintanar Great Again. The landowner proceeds to beat the peasant even more brutally once Quixote disappears out of sight.

I am not going to carry this analogy throughout the book. Quixote is redeemed from being a Trump like character in three ways — Cervantes treats him brutally, he suffers an endless series of defeats and injuries during his quests, which makes him endearing and pitiable. This stands in strong context to the self-pitying Trump who believes the world is constantly out of get him, even calling the global Coronavirus pandemic a form of conspiracy against him.

The second way Quixote is redeemed is through his friendship with Sancho Panza. Their conversations form the backbone of the novel and relieve the book from letting Quixote’s early megalomania get out of hand. Perhaps we all might feel better about DJT if he had a relatable sidekick like Panza instead of his motley cast of incompetents and knaves.

The third way Quixote is redeemed is that he actually believes in helping people, he’s devoted to the knight errant’s quests. Trump, from all indications, sought the Presidency only to lavish adoration upon himself, and perhaps to bail out his failing companies.

I am firmly in the camp of those who think Trump is not worthy of any sympathy, but I do believe it is important to observe the Quixote myth through his story, because we should not get carried away with Quixotism. Trump is a worthy cautionary tale. You must be in a place of privilege to consider second-half of life digressions. And there is always something juvenile about these quests. The advertising exec who retires at 50 to write a novel, believing he is somehow more qualified than the poet who works tirelessly at his art, is no less ridiculous than a real estate mogul who wakes up one day and thinks he deserves to rule the world’s most powerful country.

In chapter I, Quixote crafts a helmet and then tests it to see if it can take a blow. It didn’t go well:

He took out his sword and struck it twice, and with the first blow he undid in a moment what it had taken him a week to create; he could not help being disappointed at the ease with which he had hacked it to pieces, and to protect against that danger, he made another one, placing strips of iron on the inside so that he was satisfied with its strength; and not wanting to put it to the test again, he designated and accepted it as an extremely fine sallet.

There is a Homer Simpson-like charm to Quixote’s actions and everyone can relate to it. But one day, we might just find this amateurish charm winning enough to put someone into a serious job doing something that affects the lives of us all … such as managing a global pandemic.

And then it’s not so funny and charming anymore.