Oh, Sancho: The Ongoing Ride of Don Quixote in American Politics

What can Miguel de Cervantes's novel tell us about the "post-truth" era?

By Aaron R. HanlonDecember 28, 2016

Oh, Sancho: The Ongoing Ride of Don Quixote in American Politics

DON QUIXOTE is such a player in US politics that he might as well run for office. This year he has been spotted everywhere.

Hillary Clinton’s run for president was “quixotic,” an unlikely attempt to break “the highest glass ceiling.” The rhetoric of Trump’s campaign was “quixotic” because his border security strategy — “build a wall” — sounded delusional. Trump (himself) is “quixotic” because he “has often taken both sides of a controversial question.” In similar spirit, Jill Stein has led a “quixotic” effort to recount votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

These invocations of quixotism are both timely and typical, as “quixotic” signals two things in particular about political actors: a foolhardy attempt to do something impossible, or a delusional comportment not compatible with the exigencies of real life.

I’d like to introduce a third quality of quixotism that helps us understand the 2016 election. In one of many farcical moments in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the titular knight approaches a group of galley slaves, a chain gang of convicted criminals. Quixote asks each man how he ended up in chains, and each prisoner tells a lie about being unjustly imprisoned. Believing them, Quixote chases off the guards and frees the criminals, who express their gratitude by forcibly robbing Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. Perhaps there’s an allegory here about the consequences of believing the weasel words of a criminal (alleged), but the greater issue is how Quixote so tragically misread the situation in the first place.

Given the presence of Don Quixote in US culture from its beginnings to the present — both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were admirers, and kept prized copies of Cervantes’s novel — you probably know the basics even if you haven’t read the book. Quixote is a middling man leading a mundane life, from which he escapes by immersing himself in antiquated chivalric romance fiction, stories about knights rescuing princesses from giants and dragons. He becomes so enmeshed in these fictions that he believes his uninteresting reality is actually a romance plot, such that peasant women are princesses, donkeys are glistening white steeds, criminals are persecuted heroes, and windmills are fearsome giants.

In other words, because of the story Quixote tells himself about the significance of his own life, he witnesses the same events as everyone else, but comes away with a completely different set of facts. He reasons soundly from what he sees, but his perception is radically different from how everyone else perceives.

When, for example, a local man named Carrasco decides to dress up like a knight and challenge Quixote as part of plot to subdue him, Quixote gives him a severe beating, leaving Carrasco wondering whether he’s as mad as Quixote for attempting the trick. Indeed, as characters like Carrasco attempt to imitate the norms of chivalric romance, either to ridicule Quixote or to rein him in, this behavior only reinforces Quixote’s impression that he lives a romance plot.

This mismatch between Quixote’s perception and everyone else’s renders him something like delusional, but not quite. Those who witness his behavior regularly acknowledge his capacities for justice, rational thought, and reasoned speech. Thus, Quixote has a way of severing rationality from fact. He represents a failure of empiricism — an unreliability arising not from the absence of rationality, but from the stubborn complexity of perception.

This, I would argue, is precisely how the 2016 election went down. Due largely to Trump’s loose relationship with the truth, fact-checking held an outsized presence in the 2016 campaign season, reducing political discourse to arguments about whose facts were more factual. Meanwhile, our most trusted polls and poll aggregators were putting the chances of a Hillary Clinton victory at 70 percent or higher.

Progressives — particularly the amorphously defined “elite” — puzzled at how so many people could support Trump, given the facts.

This only reinforced the impression of progressivism as synonymous with “point-and-laugh” elitism, as it presented the contest between Clinton and Trump as one with an empirically self-evident conclusion: the sure victory of Clinton’s command of facts and policy over Trump’s blustering nonsense. Then the unexpected results rolled in, and we figured Trump’s win was a real “brick through the window” moment: the revenge of the undereducated white working class, who felt ignored, economically disenfranchised, and alienated by snooty liberals and their facts.

We’ve maintained that story in the face of fact. Exit polling shows that voters with incomes under $30,000 went for Clinton; voters with incomes under $49,999 went for Clinton; and voters who cited the economy as the most important issue to them in this election went for Clinton.

What explains this explanatory failure of facts?

Jon Schwarz writes:

The core belief of the technocrats who run the Democratic Party is that people rationally evaluate facts and then make decisions. In reality, humans all have an emotional, internally consistent story running inside them all the time about the world and their place in it — and if they encounter any “facts” that contradict this story, the facts just bounce right off.

Schwarz, who holds rational evaluation of facts in opposition to the “emotional” work of stories, is half-correct. As with Quixote, the “internally consistent” stories we tell ourselves about who we are — to ourselves and to the wider world — hold tremendous influence over how we respond to facts and events, but to call such stories “emotional” is an error.

Beyond the false dichotomy of emotion versus rationality, “quixotism” is a better way of understanding this dynamic by which we all live in the same world but perceive differing sets of facts.

When someone who lives where my parents live — a rural county in western Pennsylvania — looks around, there’s no question their facts look different from those of urban dwellers in Washington, DC or New York City. Instead of minority college students having discussions about white privilege, they see a lot of struggling white people. Instead of the “inner city,” which today looks more like Fifth Avenue than a “war zone,” they see people keeping arms innocuously and sometimes bearing them at deer and other overpopulated game. It’s not that rural white America is fueled by irrational emotion, nor even that it’s flatly delusional; it’s that the empirical reality of the everyday in rural white America aligns cleanly and rationally with the stories people in rural white America consume and relay. Once Quixote’s stories lead him to believe that the chain gang is more likely to be disguised victims of injustice than criminals and cons, the empirical fact of their chains reinforces, rather than undermines, his belief.

Urban progressives are susceptible to the same kinds of quixotism, convincing ourselves of the power of technocratic forms of rationality and then baffling at how so many people could buy Trump’s BS.

The cliché used to describe this situation is the “bubble” — the result of “red” and “blue” Americas gleaning separate sets of facts. Quixotism teaches us that even if we attempt to burst the bubbles with fact-checking and fetishistic exposés of life in Appalachia, a shared sense of fact is not enough to account for the power of the stories we tell.

For so many Trump supporters, the ambiguously corrupt insiderism of Hillary Clinton was more threatening than the salient fact that Trump has been involved in over 4,000 lawsuits. But if the broader story of Hillary’s self-interestedness, duplicitousness, and elitism is what much of the United States has consumed for decades now, the fact of Trump’s vast and identifiable corruption means little.

The European Enlightenment saw a profound resurgence of interest in the Quixote story and provided a guiding hope, from Locke to Jefferson, that reason might free us from error. And yet how many quixotes marched on with a story in the face of devastating facts? In so many ways, revolutions in England, the United States, France, and Saint-Domingue between 1642 and 1804 defied the facts, and brought to light new and more germane facts previously minimized or ignored.

If we want to understand our political differences in 2016, we won’t learn anything new by setting up a false dichotomy of rational urban elites and emotional rural Americans. We are all quixotic, which is to say we all measure the facts before our eyes by the stories that made us who we are, and shape how we see ourselves and who we want to be. Indeed, as with Quixote, the more facts we witness that affirm those stories, the more formidable is their hold.

Quixotism has several remedies. In Female Quixotism, published in 1801, Tabitha Gilman Tenney’s American heroine, Dorcas Sheldon, styles herself “Dorcasina” after engrossing herself in British romance novels. Dorcasina, heiress to a substantial estate on the Pennsylvania frontier, attracts a handful of male suitors — mostly criminals and con artists — who indulge Dorcasina’s romantic tendencies in attempts to swindle her out of her inheritance.

At stake for Dorcasina, then, is not just a family fortune, but a reliable way of vetting strangers on the frontier, men who swoop into town with fictional backstories that prove difficult to fact-check. Even after Dorcasina’s family presents her with solid evidence that the man she wants to marry is a criminal and a fraud, Dorcasina refuses to believe it.

As Tenney would have it, Dorcasina’s quixotism leaves her particularly vulnerable to fraud and misinformation because of the “bubble” effect, the differences between sentimental life in tidily ended British fiction of the 18th century, and the real dangers of life on the American frontier. But Dorcasina’s quixotism narrates a much greater concern for US democracy in its fledgling moments, a concern central to additional early American quixotic narratives that appeared just after the revolution, like Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry, published in varying editions from 1792 to 1815, and Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, published in 1797.

As evinced by the creation of the impediment to direct democracy known as the Electoral College, America’s founding elite worried that emotional and uninformed mobs, people who couldn’t understand or decipher the facts, could throw a young nation into disorder. It makes sense that writers then and now would turn to quixotism as a vehicle for expressing and explaining anxieties about the failure of facts to unite or synthesize our differing stories.

The aging and unmarried Dorcasina vows to “spend the rest of her days in assisting others less fortunate than herself, in sewing, and in reading novels,” but with a telling caveat. She will only assist “those who, by misfortunes […] have been reduced from opulent or easy circumstances to indigence.” In other words, a reformed Dorcasina will only help the formerly rich. The “cure” for quixotism here is no cure at all, for Dorcasina only commits herself to reinforcing critical reading practices among the Jeffersonian elite, while the mob rages on.

In Charles Lucas’s The Infernal Quixote, written in 1801, the quixotic Marauder, who “bore the appearance of Milton’s Satan,” has read too much radical philosophy. Marauder becomes a dangerous libertine, seducing the beautiful Emily without marrying her, and kidnapping her sister, Fanny.

Marauder frames the challenge of Female Quixotism from the angle of the con artist, demonstrating the dangers of a quixotic self-interest, a belief in the importance of one’s own ideological convictions above all else. The women Marauder victimizes are, like Dorcasina, vulnerable to the words and schemes of a duplicitous man who will tell everyone what they want to hear if it will bring him closer to satiating his raw desires. Not until Marauder’s white-hat rival, Wilson, chases him toward the precipice of a cliff do we learn that Marauder is being mysteriously “urged” to plunge himself over the cliff by “every deadly fiend of guilt, depravity, and madness,” suggesting the only cure for his quixotism is his ultimate downfall.

The truth is that there is no cure for quixotism. Important as it is to maintain a stable sense of what’s true — or at least a stable set of methods by which we can reliably vet truth claims — facts have never been enough to unite discordant narratives about the way things are.

Quixotic fiction works by presenting stark contrasts between the perceptual tendencies of quixotes and of everyone else, and inviting readers to note the difference so we can determine whether the toxic ideology under critique belongs to the quixote or to the society from which the quixote deviates. Real-life perceptual gaps are often less obvious, but no less quixotic, and no more amenable to fact-checking.

The way to address quixotism, then, is not by assuming that if only we all had the most factual facts, if only we all saw the same chains on the galley slaves, we would draw more compatible conclusions. To address quixotism we have to stop trying to explain everything in “this one chart” and start paying closer attention to the impact of stories.


Aaron R. Hanlon, a specialist in 18th-century British and transatlantic literature, is an assistant professor of English at Colby College. His work has also appeared in the New Republic, The Atlantic, and Salon.

LARB Contributor

Aaron R. Hanlon is assistant professor of English at Colby College. His essays have appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, Salon, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He is writing an academic book on Don Quixote and imperialist politics in 18th-century Britain, and a trade book on the politics of free speech in higher education. You can learn more about his teaching, research, and writing at aaronrhanlon.com.


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