You may have seen some of these paintings already. I’d seen maybe half of them floating around social media over recent months. They’re the work of a painter from Utah named Jon McNaughton. (You can find all his work for sale here.) He specializes in a sort of kitschy painting focusing on patriotic and Christian themes. They have a very didactic bent. People from wildly different eras of history side by side in highly didactic group portraits. So you’ll have Jesus being shunned at the podium in the House of Representatives or this painting of Moses with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Antonin Scalia, Phyllis Schlafly and others.
What makes McNaughton’s painting more than a mere curiosity is that he’s developed a huge following on the American right. He’s got the endorsement of Sean Hannity, who frequently posts his new work. (He seems to do a good business selling various prints and reproductions of his paintings to right-wing Republicans – on that front, good for him.) His work has also been lampooned on various mainstream TV shows and websites. Shortly after President Trump’s election he even got this write-up by the art critic of The New Yorker. Like so much of the right today, perhaps half of the effort is to goad non-conservatives into histrionics slugfests which confirms and perpetuates a critical sense of aggrievement.
McNaughton first broke out, as it were, with this 2010 painting called The Forgotten Man, which he says was inspired by the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The title is likely a play on this 1934 painting of the same name by Maynard Dixon. The Forgotten Man got another burst of press just after the 2016 election when Sean Hannity purchased the original painting. Originally he seemed into gifting it to President Trump to hang in the White House.
(I’m embedding Twitter links rather than the images themselves because Twitter gives the copyright permission to embed them. To get an enlarged version double click on the links which will take you to Twitter. Then click on the image again. That will give you a large version where you can see more detail.)
I called this painting, “The Forgotten Man.” What more can be said? pic.twitter.com/ORPgmDEqGt
— Jon McNaughton (@McNaughtonArt) January 9, 2016
It’s one of several anti-Obama paintings. Here’s one other.
How much more of Obama can we take? This painting is called, “Obamanation.” pic.twitter.com/CZO0PkAHLF
— Jon McNaughton (@McNaughtonArt) June 20, 2014
As you can see in both paintings, they are not so much paintings as visual alternative histories of the recent past. In their visual didacticism, they hearken back to various medieval artistic genres meant to impart church teachings to the illiterate. They are perhaps termed Nationalist Realism since they seem so clearly rooted in the Social Realism art which had official sanction in the Soviet Union from the early 1930s until the 1980s.
The Forgotten Man is a visual guide to the betrayal of the ‘common man’ under Obama rule. In Obamanation (see a more detailed hi-res version here) we see the shamed Cambridge policemen who arrested Henry Louis Gates and then had a ‘Beer Summit’ at the White House. There’s the trodden upon Benjamin Netanyahu, an out of work African-American laborer. There’s George Soros on the right with his briefcase and easel describing the to-do list for the radical transformation of the United States. In the foreground is the bust of Winston Churchill tossed indifferently on the ground. These paintings are fascinating if nothing else for just how much didactic detail is baked into them. There’s a Catholic priest contemplating a pack of birth control pills, a dejected soldier compelled to eat a gay wedding cake, a Christmas Tree festooned with Islamic symbols. That only scrapes the surface of what’s in there.
They are a sort of Where’s Waldo of right-wing conspiracy theories and victimization. Each photo is a catalog of indictment, with a visual signifier if you look hard enough for it, for every purported outrage.
But McNaughton has only really come into his own in the Trump era, rendering a series of paintings of President Trump. The first is this revisiting of the Forgotten Man entitled You Are Not Forgotten.
This man is taking a knee in the painting, but it is not to protest his country. pic.twitter.com/WN2RqinRga
— Jon McNaughton (@McNaughtonArt) September 26, 2017
See the full-sized version here. You have Trump with the hand gently outstretched to the struggling white family seeing the first rays of hope with a plant sprouting out of the parched ground. Trump, notably, is a crushing a snake’s head underfoot. Aside from this biblical imagery, you have a full cast of Trump grandees: Mattis, Pence, Sheriff Clarke, Rex Tillerson is actually in the background. This has been followed by a stream of new Trump paintings – apparently hot sellers.
Here’s Respect the Flag, with a troubled Trump clasping a ragged American flag.
My new painting – “Respect the Flag.”
When we don’t respect the flag enough to fight for it, we will be the weakest generation. – Jon McNaughton pic.twitter.com/Z3hVOa6CMn
— Jon McNaughton (@McNaughtonArt) February 27, 2018
And released just days ago Teach a Man to Fish – You’ll notice the college-aged student Trump is trying to teach is carrying a book with the title Socialism.
My new painting, “Teach a Man a Fish.” — “You can give a man a pole. It doesn’t mean he will use it.” —JonMcNaughton.com pic.twitter.com/yEvMO8sBZo
— Jon McNaughton (@McNaughtonArt) April 25, 2018
The paintings are of course at one level just comical schlock. Most levels, really. But what I want to focus on is the idealized Trump we find in these paintings, a sort of gentle teacher, humbly dispensing lessons, reprising various biblical motifs. This is needless to say, quite different from any actual Trump who has ever walked the earth. Even if you like, perhaps especially if you like Trump, he is the archetypical dominator of enemies. He’s a disruptor. He’s a lot of other things. But this is the most positive read. But here we have the creation of this alternative, godly Trump, which you actually see increasingly in various Christian art produced over the last year which incorporate Trump into scenes communing with or taking guidance from Jesus.
There’s only so much we can draw from McNaughton’s painting, though the sales reproductions of his work and his growing fame on the Trumpist right give some indication of how much he resonates. This kind of hagiography is one small part of a story we are fools to miss. Even as President Trump in some ways losing grip over the Presidency, he is tightening his grip on the Republican party. He’s not losing ground on that front. His grip is intensifying and transforming what the core of the GOP is.