The United Kingdom voted to Brexit, and the United States chose Donald Trump to be president, and both of these events, as well as other popular uprisings, have been interpreted as a global rejection of the era of neoliberal politics and economics. The election of Donald Trump has the added feature of marking the rise of an uncouth outsider, a hillbilly from Long Island. The shocking event seems to be a sort of cosmic riddle or zen koan in which a vulgar buffoon is both wrong about much but right about a little, in ways that have confounded all observers. Some see his victory as an absolutely repulsive development, yet millions of people love him, while others have had to reluctantly admit that he is the broken clock that is correct twice a day, or there is method in his madness, or he is the Schrödinger's cat of politics: one second brilliant the next hour dumb, usually blunt, sometimes sharp, the lesser evil and the greater evil.
I propose here that an overlooked comparison is that he resembles Sancho Panza in the classic novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote. A major element of this famous story consists of Sancho’s constant hope of being rewarded with a governorship after his long, faithful service to his master, the deranged but brilliant Don Quixote. Throughout the novel, the deluded pair speak about the dream of having lands to rule over while they engage in many lengthy discussions about the art of governance.
Don Quixote is the fictional errant knight created by Miguel de Cervantes in two works of fiction, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha Part 1 (1605) and Part 2 (1615). Spain had just spent a century plundering the silver of the new world, but the galleon trade had corrupted the nobility, caused global financial chaos, and ultimately weakened the Spanish empire. Carlos Fuentes described it as “a country that has conquered and plundered and built a New World in the Americas and returns, exhausted.”
Don Quixote is a late middle-aged estate owner who, having read too many romantic tales of chivalric knights, seeks greater meaning in life by setting off on a life of adventure and daring-do with his servant and sidekick, Sancho Panza. As the road story unfolds, Don Quixote must see every mundane encounter through a lens of delusion in order to make it meet his expectation of adventure and his need to do good. Imagination must test reality, or reality must test imagination.
Part 1 was a literary success that Cervantes added to ten years later with Part 2, and with these he gave the Western canon some of its earliest meta-fiction before there was a word for it (Shakespeare’s play within the play appeared in the same decade). In the contemporary era, we know that real gangsters watch the fictional Silvio from the television drama The Sopranos doing an imitation of Al Pacino from the fictional movie The Godfather Part 3. Before all this, in the early seventeenth century, Cervantes had his hero in Part 2 living in a world in which everyone he meets has read Part 1, and his celebrity as the foolish, errant knight is what leads him to be invited by real aristocrats to a real castle for their mocking amusement and his humiliation. Ricky Gervais recently paid homage to Cervantes, knowingly or not, by bringing back his quixotic David Brent in Part 2 of The Office (entitled David Brent: Life on the Road), after a similar gap of about a decade. Like Don Quixote, David Brent in Part 2 is known by his audience because of his previous appearance in Part 1 (The Office), a BBC "documentary" about the lives of ordinary office workers.
In this castle, Don Quixote is finally living the dream, but it is here that he eventually becomes aware that only his previous make-believe at a country inn, which he imagined was a castle, has lived up to his ideals. Life with true aristocrats has shown him their treachery. After all, the noble baron turns out to be a greater fake than the deluded knight. It is revealed by his servants that he is hopelessly in debt to the rising merchant class. As Don Quixote wakes up from his illusions, the aristocrats are disillusioned as well, for they have been slow to realize that they needed Don Quixote more than he needed them. He possessed something essential that they lacked in themselves. As the reviewer Richard Eder put it, “Seeking to toy with him, they are toyed with, just as readers have been ever since.” As a child who grew up on American television in the 1960s, when I read Don Quixote, I could finally see the influences behind The Beverly Hillbillies, a rags-to-riches tale of mutual satire between country bumpkins and elites.
In a review of the English translation by Edith Grossman, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote:
The illusion comes crashing down. Books are no longer the grand, imaginative truth that moved Don Quixote through perils without end. So the windmills were not giants. So the armies were only flocks of sheep. So reality is shabby, gray, unarmed... What can Don Quixote do but return home, get into bed, recover his reason and peacefully die? The “impossible dream” is over. No wonder that Dostoyevsky, in his diary, calls Don Quixote “the saddest book ever written.” For it is, he adds, “the story of disillusionment.” That Edith Grossman has brought all these levels—and many more—to contemporary life is a major literary achievement. For to read Don Quixote, in an increasingly Manichaean world of simplistic Good versus Evil and inquisitorial dogmas, becomes one of the healthiest experiences a modern, democratic citizen can undertake.
Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, is the fool when his master is wise, and wise when his master is the fool. Throughout the story he often forgets, or pretends to forget, that his master is mad, and he goes along with his delusions, imagining that when Don Quixote prevails, he himself will be rewarded with a fiefdom (an insula, or island) in Africa that will provide him with an endless bounty of wine, gems and young maidens. Later in the story, the duke and duchess create an elaborate prank in which Sancho is told they have made him the governor of one of their territories. After ten days of living through this prank, which he never catches onto, he learns that power comes with a price a price too steep to pay, and he jumps at the chance to return to his humble home. Meanwhile, everyone who has toyed with him is in awe of the wisdom with which the presumed fool has governed.
Carlos Fuentes said in his review of Grossman’s translation, “Don Quixote has so many levels of significance that I can set foot on only a couple of them.” I leave it to readers to add their own ideas about what the great tale means in this age when the American empire is, like Spain in the 17th century, straining to deal with the disillusionment that comes after a century of ruling the world.
Although the discussions about the art of governing are treated lightly by the characters in the novel, they have been taken seriously by scholars as reflections of political philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries. In one of the notes in the English translation, Edith Grossman stated:
Don Quixote’s advice to Sancho is one of the most famous passages in the novel. Martin de Riquer notes the difficulty of determining Cervantes’ exact sources, although he states that the general influence of Erasmus is evident, and he also cites a handful of books on good government, both classical and Renaissance, available in Spanish at the time. Whatever the sources, Don Quixote’s remarks to the future governor are clearly the polar opposite of Machiavelli’s counsel to the prince.
The excerpts below illustrate some obvious resemblances to the rhetoric, conservative politics, and personality of Donald Trump, although we might conclude that Sancho comes across in the end as more humane, thanks to his enduring attachment to his humble roots. Nonetheless, Sancho's autocratic and conservative tendencies are plain to see. Beyond these comparisons, the conversations in the story include much sage advice that we wish Donald Trump would take to heart because they describe, as Edith Grossman noted above, a humanistic alternative to Machiavelli.
The contemporary situation also resembles Sancho’s because it seems that the American elites who exhibited such tragic hubris in 2016 were also toying with the Donald and ended up being toyed with themselves, just like the duke and duchess in Cervantes’ novel. It also seems clear that Donald’s reign will be short like that of Sancho, who soon tired of his governorship and longed to return to his simple life. There is reason to suspect that the Donald may have been set up in his station, at first because he was supposed to lose, but then later perhaps in order to play at being king for a while so the ruling class could withdraw for a spell to regroup and avoid the ruinous consequences of their time in power. This presidency is either a deliberate man-made prank or a cosmic prank for all to contemplate. It could be that Trump is set to be the fall guy for an overdue economic shock and period of chaos that would have come with or without him. The similarities end there, of course, because there is nothing of a pretend kingdom in a situation in which the man “playing governor” has access to the nuclear codes, but Cervantes’ words nonetheless shed some interesting light on these strange days in Washington.
Excerpts from Don Quixote concerning Sancho Panza’s brief governorship of Insula Barataria
Don Quixote’s advice to Sancho upon assuming the duties of his governorship:
You… find yourself rewarded with all your desires. Others bribe, importune, solicit, are early risers, plead, persist, and do not achieve what they long for, and another comes along and without knowing how or why finds himself with the office and position that many others strove for; and here the saying certainly applies and is appropriate: aspirations are ruled by good and bad fortune. You, who in my opinion are undoubtedly a dolt, and who, without rising early or staying up late or making any effort whatsoever, with nothing more than the breath of knight errantry that has touched you, without further ado find yourself governor of an insula as if it were no consequence. I say all this, O Sancho, so that you do not attribute the kindness you have received to your own merits, but give thanks to heaven for disposing matters so sweetly, and then to the greatness that lies in the profession of knight errantry.
… offices and great responsibilities are nothing more than a deep gulf of confusions… you must look at who you are and make an effort to know yourself, which is the most difficult knowledge one can imagine. When you know yourself, you will not puff yourself up like the frog who wanted to be the equal of the ox.
… those who are not of noble origin should bring to the gravity of the position they hold a gentle-mildness which, guided by prudence, may save them from the malicious gossip that no station in life can escape.
If you bring your wife with you (because it is not a good idea for those who attend to governing for a long time to be without their own spouses), teach her, instruct her, and smooth away her natural roughness, because everything a wise governor acquires can be lost and wasted by a crude and foolish wife.
Never be guided by arbitrariness in law, which tends to have a good deal of influence on ignorant men who take pride in being clever. Let the tears of the poor find in you more compassion, but not more justice, than the briefs of the wealthy. Try to discover the truth in all the promises and gifts or the rich man, as well as in the poor man’s sobs and entreaties. When there can and should be a place for impartiality, do not bring the entire rigor of the law to bear on the offender, for the reputation of the harsh judge is not better than that of the compassionate one. If you happen to bend the staff of justice, let it be with the weight not of a gift but of mercy.
Do not be blinded by your own passion in another’s trial, for most of the time the mistakes you make cannot be remedied, and if they can, it will be to the detriment of your good name and even your fortune. If a beautiful woman comes to you to plead for justice, turn your eyes from her tears and your ears from her sobs, and consider without haste the substance of what she is asking if you do not want your reason to be drowned in her weeping and your goodness in her sighs. If you must punish a man with deeds, do not abuse him with words, for the pain of punishment is enough for the unfortunate man without the addition of malicious speech. Consider the culprit who falls under your jurisdiction as a fallen man subject to the conditions of our depraved nature, and to the extent that you can, without doing injury to the opposing party, show him compassion and clemency, because although all the attributes of God are equal, in our view mercy is more brilliant and splendid than justice.
If you follow these precepts and rules, Sancho, your days will be long, your fame eternal, your rewards overflowing, your joy indescribable. (p. 729)
Sancho to Don Quixote: I’ll have no lack of ability to govern it, and if I do, I’ve heard it said that there are men in the world who farm the estates of gentlemen, who pay them so much each year to manage everything, and the gentleman sits with his feet up, enjoying the rent they pay him and not worrying about anything else, and that’s what I’ll do.
Don Quixote’s reply: That’s fine as far as enjoying the rent is concerned, but the administration of justice has to be tended to by the owner of the estate, and this is where ability and good judgment come in, and in particular a real intention to do what is right, for if this is lacking in the beginning, the middle and the end will always be wrong.
Sancho: I have as much soul as any other man, and as much body as the biggest of them, and I’ll be as much king of my estate as any other is of his; and this being true, I’ll do what I want, and doing what I want, I’ll do what I like, and doing what I’ll like, I’ll be happy, and when a man is happy he doesn’t wish for anything else, and not wishing for anything else, that’ll be the end of it, so bring on my estate, and God willing we’ll see, as one blind man said to the other. (p. 431)
They [Don Quixote and two friends] began to discuss what is called reason of state and ways of governing, correcting this abuse and condemning that one, reforming one custom and eliminating another, each one of the three becoming a new legislator… and they so transformed the nation that it seemed as if they had placed it in the forge and taken out a new one. (p. 460)
A friend advising Sancho: those who govern insulas have to know grammar at the very least… offices can alter behavior, and it might be that when you are governor you won’t know the mother who bore you. (p. 477, 488)
Don Quixote: … at times his [Sancho’s] simpleness is so clever that deciding if he is simple or clever is a cause of no small pleasure; his slyness condemns him for a rogue, and his thoughtlessness confirms him as a simpleton; he doubts everything, and he believes everything; when I think that he is about to plunge headlong into foolishness, he comes out with perceptions that raise him to the skies… by dint of long experience we know that neither great ability nor great learning is needed to be a governor, for there are in the world at least a hundred who barely know how to read, and who govern in a grand manner; the essential point is that they have good intentions and the desire to always do the right thing, for they will never lack someone to guide and counsel them in what they must do. (674)
Sancho to the Duchess: I believe my master, Don Quixote, is completely crazy, even though sometimes he says things that in my opinion, and in the opinion of everybody who hears him, are so intelligent and well-reasoned that Satan himself couldn’t say them better; but even so, truly and without any scruples, it’s clear to me that he’s a fool.
The Duchess’ reply: … Since Don Quixote of La Mancha is a madman, a fool and a simpleton, and Sancho Panza his squire knows this and still serves him, and believes his hollow promises, there can be no doubt that he is more of a madman and a dimwit than his master; and this being the case, and it is, it will not be to your credit, Senora Duchess [speaking to herself in the third person], if you give this Sancho Panza an insula to govern, because if a man cannot govern himself, how will he govern others?
Sancho’s reply: … if I were a clever man, I would have left my master days ago. But this is my fate and this is my misfortune; I can’t help it; I have to follow him: we’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I love him dearly, he’s a grateful man… I’m faithful; and so it’s impossible for anything to separate us except the man with the pick and shovel. (678)
Sancho: As for governing them well, there’s no need to charge me with it, because I am charitable by nature and have compassion for the poor; and if he kneads and bakes, you can’t steal his cakes, by my faith, they won’t throw me any crooked dice; I’m an old dog and understand every here, boy, and I know how to wake up at the right time, and I don’t allow cobwebs in front of my eyes, because I know if the shoe fits: I say this because with me good men will have my hand and a place in my house, and bad men won’t get a foot or permission to enter. And it seems to me that in this business of governorships it’s all a matter of starting, and it may be that after two weeks of being a governor I’ll be licking my lips over work and know more about it than working in the fields, which is what I’ve grown up doing. (680)
Sancho: After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity and pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? … Let’s have the insula, and I’ll do my best to be a good governor that in spite of rogues and rascals I’ll go to heaven; it isn’t greed that makes me want to leave my hut or rise to better things, but a desire I have to try it and see what it tastes like to be a governor.
The Duke: If you try it once… you’ll long to eat it again, because it is a very sweet thing to give orders and be obeyed.
Sancho: I imagine it is good to command, even if it is only a herd of cattle. (p. 729)
He [Don Quixote] spoke nonsense only with regard to chivalry, and in other conversations he demonstrated a clear and confident understanding, so that his actions constantly belied his judgment, and his judgment belied his actions; but in this matter of the additional advice he gave to Sancho, he showed that he possessed great cleverness and revealed to a very high degree both his intelligence and his madness. (p. 732)
Sancho: Let them make fun of me and speak ill of me: they’ll come for wool and go home shorn; and when God loves you, your house knows it; and the rich man’s folly passes for good judgment in the world; and since that’s what I’ll be, being a governor and a very generous one, which is what I plan to be, nobody will notice any faults in me. No, just be like honey and the flies will go after you; you’re only worth as much as you have, my grandmother used to say; and you can’t get revenge on a well-established man… Nobody should take on his governor or the person in authority because he’ll come out of it hurt. (p. 735)
Don Quixote: … this plump little body of yours is nothing but a sack filled with proverbs and guile. (p. 736)
Don Quixote on how Sancho governed:
… one can deduce that those who govern, even if they are fools, are occasionally guided by God in their judgments (p. 750)
… serious offices and responsibilities either strengthen the mind or make it torpid. (p. 773)
Sancho: It is my intention to clear this insula of all kinds of filth, as well as people who are vagrants, idlers and sluggards, because I want you to know, my friends, that shiftless, lazy people are to the nation what drones are to the hive: they eat the honey that the worker bees produce. I intend to favor those who labor, maintain the privileges of the gentry, reward the virtuous, and, above all, respect religion and honor the clergy. What do you think of this, my friends? Have I just said something or am I racking my brains for nothing?
His advisor’s response: Your grace has said so much… that I am amazed to see a man as unlettered as your grace, who, I believe, has no letters at all, saying so many things full of wisdom and good counsel, far beyond what was expected of your grace’s intelligence by those who sent us here and by those who came here with you. Every day we see new things in the world: deceptions become the truth, and deceivers find themselves deceived. (p. 774)
Don Quixote’s letter of advice to Sancho Panza during his governorship:
They tell me that you govern as if you were a man, and that you are a man as if you were an animal, so humbly to you behave.
Many times it is proper and necessary, because of the authority of one’s position, to contravene the humility of one’s heart, because the admirable qualities in the person who holds high office ought to conform to the demands of the office, not the measures to which his humble state inclines him.
To win the good will of the people you govern, you must do two things, among others: one is to be civil to everyone… and the other is to attempt to provide them with the necessities of life, for there is nothing that troubles the heart of the poor more than hunger and need.
Do not issue many edicts, and if you do, try to make them good ones, and, above all, ones that are carried out and obeyed; for edicts that are not carried out are as good as non-existent, and they let it be known that the prince who had the intelligence and authority to issue them did not have the courage to enforce them; laws that intimidate but are not enforced become like that log that was king of the frogs; at first it frightened them, but in time they came to despise it and climbed upon it.
Be a father to virtues and a step-father to vices. Do not always be severe, or always mild, but choose the middle way between those two extremes; this is the object of wisdom. Visit the prisons, the slaughterhouses, and the market squares, for the presence of the governor in these places is of great importance: it consoles the prisoners, who can hope for quick release; it frightens the butchers, who then make their weights honest; it terrifies the market women, and for the same reason. Do not show yourself to be, even if you are—which I do not believe—a greedy man, a womanizer, or a glutton, because if people and those you deal with learn your specific inclination, that is where they will attack until they throw you down to the depths of perdition.
Look at and examine, consider and review the advice and precepts I gave you in writing before you left for your governorship, and you will see that you can find in them, if you follow them, something to help you bear the trials and difficulties that governors constantly encounter… The person who is grateful to those who have granted him benefits indicates that he will also be grateful to God. (p. 793)
Sancho’s letter of reply to Don Quixote:
I’m dying of despair because I thought I’d come to this governorship and have hot food and cold drinks, and please my body with linen sheets and featherbeds, but I’ve come to do penance, like a hermit, and since I’m not doing it willingly, I think the devil will take me in the end…. may God free your grace from the evil intentions of enchanters, and take me from this governorship safe and sound, which I doubt, because… I don’t think I’ll get away with more than my life. (p. 795)
At the entry to the insula there was a bridge, and each man who crossed was asked a question. If his answer was found to be a lie, he would be hung on the gallows on the other side of the bridge. One day a man came and declared, “I will be hung on those gallows over there.” Sancho was asked to administer justice in this case and solve the paradox created by the man’s statement. His answer:
...since the reasons for condemning him or sparing him are balanced perfectly, they should let him pass freely, for doing good is always more praiseworthy than doing evil. (p. 792)
He [Sancho] created and appointed a bailiff for the poor, not to persecute them but to examine them to see if they really were poor, because in the shadow of feigned cripples and false wounds come the strong arms of thieves and very healthy drunkards. In short, he ordained things so good that to this day they are obeyed in that village… (p. 797)
Those who had deceived him [Sancho] regretted having taken the joke so far. (p. 807)
Sancho: Let me return to my old liberty; let me go and find my past life, so that I can come back from this present death. I was not born to be a governor. (p. 807)
Before the governorship could do away with me, I decided to do away with the governorship. (822)
 Carlos Fuentes, “‘Tilt,’ a review Edith Grossman’s English translation of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes,” New York Times, November 2, 2003.
 Richard Eder, “Beholding Windmills and Wisdom From a New Vantage,” New York Times, Books of the Times, November 14, 2003.
 Fuentes op. cit.
 Edith Grossman, Don Quixote: A New Translation (Harper Collins, 2003).