We’ve just found out the core message of Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. It is the same as his original election message: I’m not Donald Trump, who, if reelected, will be Hitler 2.0. This is a message destined to inspire the Democrats’ base and MSNBC viewers but suffers from one obvious constraint. The truth is that we already had four years of Trump, and he wasn’t Hitler 1.0. He was, rather, a Mel Brooks version of Hitler, performative, reactionary and, ultimately, lazy and toothless. All the grim authoritarian threats — his pledge to deport eleven million immigrants, to prosecute Hillary Clinton, to reinstate torture, to abscond with Iraq’s oil — fizzled out in office. He had golden opportunities to go full-dictator: a global pandemic and massive unrest on the streets in the summer of 2020. His response was to hand Covid to Tony Fauci and let the cities burn.
His threat to the republic stems from his belief that he should be above the rule of law; that, as president, he can do anything with “TOTAL IMMUNITY,” as he recently said on Truth Social. So he incited mob violence to prevent the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, tried to use the Justice Department as his personal tool and refused to be accountable to Congress because it violated his delusional self-image of the greatest human being ever. This is a man who would destroy the rule of law not, as tyrants do, to seize power, but as a celebrity does, to protect his delusional vanity. The choice in 2024 therefore is not between repeating history as either farce or tragedy but whether the country wants to endure, once again, the tragedy of Trump’s farce.
I used to flatter myself that my rather niche biography — grammar school boy goes to Oxford to study history, falls in love, gets dumped and eventually becomes a lonely old gay — was rare enough to be a narrative absent from most popular culture. But no! I won’t forget watching Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, because it was basically my life at age seventeen. I had a wonderful history teacher at a school just like in the movie, at exactly the same time — the early 1980s — and managed to get into Oxford with his help. Two new films strike just as close to home: Saltburn really captured the vibe of a scholarship boy meeting the Hooray Henrys at Oxford, including a doomed love affair and eventual revenge. And then Andrew Haigh’s All Of Us Strangers featured another gay man in late middle age, who came out in the late 1980s to his confused but benign parents, and then got freaked out by AIDS. He grew up in south London’s Sanderstead, which is where I grew up. They’re all different, but I’m grateful for the redundancy of my own future autobiography.
For all my adult life, I have lucked out in this way. Since the 1980s, a brilliant duo essentially wrote the story of my life across four decades in achingly beautiful and poignant pop music. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys led me through the AIDS epidemic, the mind-churning aftermath and the flourishing of gay life in the 2000s. The classic “Left To My Own Devices” was the PSB anthem for a gay boyhood; “It’s A Sin” brought the Catholicism; “It Couldn’t Happen Here” conveyed the incipient terror of the plague; “Dreaming of the Queen” brought home the grief; “Being Boring” somehow elevated it. The PSB repertoire is one of those things I simply take for granted as an echo of my own existence, and an elegantly crafted transcendence of it. Not everyone is so blessed.
The past few months have been my first in many decades without a dog. I used to have two, so that when one died there was another to console me. But then I got too attached to my last beagle, Bowie, a rescue who had only three legs but a soul that loved me for eleven years, until she died in my arms of a heart attack last August. Life has been emptier since: I walk less; there is silence when I come home; I sleep in more; I smoke more weed. The calm she gave me, the sense of perspective: these, I realize, I need. Without that company, life isn’t just more hollow and flat; my soul is.
The phrase “dog people” always irritated me, not least because it was invariably attached to misanthropy. But I’ve come to realize that being a dog person can also be seen simply as a human whose life has become ineluctably wrapped up in a force of nature, even if that force is merely a plucky little crippled hound. And so I wait for spring and another visit to the local shelter to find another stray. And the life that is really the fusion of two lives will begin afresh.