The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – Don Quixote Goes to Washington
“In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that every madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armour and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame. Already the poor man saw himself crowned by the might of his arm Emperor of Trebizond at least; and so, led away by the intense enjoyment he found in these pleasant fancies, he set himself forthwith to put his scheme into execution…” –Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
As many others, including apparently the majority of the voters in the United States, I do not care much for the politics of the current president of the United States, Mr Donald Trump. Having myself survived exposure to the nightmare scenario of his Electoral College triumph last November, nothing he has done since persuades me that he is not the narcissistic, temperamental misogynist that he projected himself to be during the campaign to citizens of the United States who, albeit, by fortuitous electoral distribution and for their various personal reasons, did not care enough about these flaws and so elected him to the high office of POTUS, as it is so charmingly referred to.
Most of my readers will be familiar with the epithet “quixotic”. It describes, according to one source, behaviour that is foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals and marked by rash, lofty, romantic ideas. The word derives from the character created in 1605 by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in his novel, “The History of the valorous and wittie (sic) Knight Errant Don Quixote of La Mancha”, to give its full title. There has been a number of musical and film adaptations since, including the 1992 “Man of La Mancha”, featuring the popular hit, “To dream the impossible dream”.
Constraints of space do not permit a fuller discussion today of the adventures of the title character, but the epigraph above offers some information as to the anatomy of his pursuits.
The connection that I seek to make between Don Quixote and Mr Trump lies in the erratic, nay, quixotic nature of the behaviour of each of these individuals. For instance, perhaps the best known escapade of Don Quixote is tilting at windmills, an expression that has found its way into the lexicon as a metaphor for inutility and one that is ideally likened to Mr Trump’s attempts to exclude Mexicans and some Muslims so that America will be “great” again, whatever that coded expression might mean.
“At this point they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that there are on a plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”
“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”
The analogy is satisfied even further whether we consider Sancho Panza to be Mr Mike Pence, the Vice-President, Ms Kellyanne Conway with her “alternative facts”, or Mr Steve Bannon with his antediluvian views on difference and press freedom; and Mr Trump’s choice weapons of war not to be the lance and shield but his penchant for executive orders and late-night-to-early-morning tweets.
None of this is to ignore the fact that for some unarticulated reasons perhaps best known to them, there are those who support Mr Trump. I will not hazard a guess as to their reasons, although I am prepared to concede that they are certainly entitled to their opinions.
Nonetheless, his obsession with being perceived as the smartest and the most popular incumbent ever, as well as his seemingly facile ignorance of the basic principles of US constitutionalism that he swore to uphold less than a month ago, together with his propensity to speak in superlatives all mark him out as nothing less than…quixotic.
Indeed, Mr Trump’s relationship with matters legal so far has been less than auspicious. First, he chose to dismiss, as was his prerogative, the substantive Attorney General for demurring to a patently discriminatory embargo on certain individuals, even as his proposed replacement awaits Senate confirmation, thus leaving a gap in the governance architecture that would be constitutionally repugnant in most other jurisdictions. Second, he nominates a predictable replacement for Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court; one who, unsurprisingly, comes mouthing the same tired conservative claptrap about the Constitution having a settled meaning, as if time has stood still since the time of Jefferson and the others in the 18th century.
This jurisprudential perception is indeed instructive in the current context, for the original Constitutional text in the US regarded certain individuals, definable by a common characteristic, as being less than whole human beings. Too besides, it is at least passing strange that this so–called “right” meaning seems always to accord with conservative points of view, while those opinions that endorse such progressive values as the autonomy of women and others to guard their privacy are considered matters of regrettable and unconstitutional judicial activism.
The following piece is apposite:
Almost immediately after, Don Quixote runs into some merchants whom he challenges to admit that his lady, Dulcinea, is the most beautiful damsel in the world. Not sure where the situation is leading, they address him as “Sir Knight” but anger him by some facetious comments regarding Dulcinea’s beauty. On hearing these remarks, Don Quixote charges but unfortunately Rocinante slips and our knight ends up beaten by a muleteer. What might be construed as a setback for Don Quixote is easily explained: it was Rocinante’s fault. But equally important (to him) is the fact that the merchants addressed Don Quixote in chivalric terms.