AMERICAN FORK, UTAH — Jon McNaughton did not intend to become the country’s most famous pro-Trump, mass-market painter of the 21st century. But then, to achieve such an identity does require a modicum of cultivation; it does not happen overnight.
In 2008, the Utah artist was selling landscapes out of a gallery in a shopping mall. Then the presidential election happened and McNaughton, who didn’t like John McCain or Barack Obama, was struck with inspiration. The result, “One Nation Under God,” was a massive canvas featuring Jesus Christ holding a copy of the Constitution, surrounded by Davy Crockett, Ronald Reagan and 61 other historical figures dismayed by the direction of the country (Satan, also in the painting, was pleased). It wasn’t particularly subtle, but something about the work spoke to people and a new creative doorway was opened.
You might have seen, for example, “The Forgotten Man,” in which Obama ignores a weeping citizen on a park bench while the Founding Fathers implore him to pay attention. Or, “The Demise of America,” in which he fiddles while the U.S. Capitol burns. Or, “One Nation Under Socialism,” in which he has lit the Constitution on fire.
After the 2016 election, McNaughton’s paintings gained a hero in Donald Trump instead of just a villain in Obama: a sequel to “The Forgotten Man,” “You Are Not Forgotten,” features the same weeping citizen, now planting a tree as Trump looks on benevolently.
Yes. McNaughton is that guy.
It’s pure id art. Which means, in the sense that art can reveal truths about the undercarriage of the psyche, McNaughton is one of the most significant painters of the current era. The New Yorker’s art critic analyzed the influence of McNaughton’s work and dubbed 2016 “The year of ‘The Forgotten Man.’ ”
“I’m just honestly a little perplexed,” says McNaughton, 50, a soft-spoken Mormon father. “I have no idea where [buyers] are hanging them; I just know I sell a ton. Sometimes I’m shocked at how many I sell. That one I told you about, Obama burning the Constitution? When I painted it, I worried, this thing is just hideous — why would anybody hang that in their living room?”
It’s not, he says, the kind of “warm, happy” work people typically want in their homes.
But they sell. McNaughton is a repeat guest on “Fox and Friends.” Sean Hannity owns several originals, including “The Forgotten Man.” McNaughton won’t say how much Hannity paid (it’s been reported as $300,000, which the artist says is too high), but the majority of his income comes not from originals but reproductions: $30 for an 11-by-14 lithograph, $700 for something large, framed and signed.
Rob Dickerson, the account manager at the printing outlet that fills McNaughton’s orders, says when customers submit orders, they often include personal notes: Your work has meant so much to me. You are my favorite artist. Sometimes orders come in with a shipping address of Trump Tower. These aren’t Trump employees, Dickerson thinks: just regular citizens spending $250-$300 on a painting they’ll never hold, sent to a man who has more money than they ever will, because the art is doing . . . something . . . for their souls.
The other day, we flew to Utah to watch McNaughton put the finishing touches on his latest work, which he planned to release by the end of the week. Over the phone, he'd said only that the painting would be "Mueller-themed."
American Fork, a Salt Lake City suburb, is an interesting town, a backdrop of ridiculous beauty and a foreground of bland chain restaurants. The address he’d provided led to Altus Fine Arts, an art consortium specializing in Mormon paintings, where McNaughton rents warehouse space. In the backroom of the nondescript white building, the painter had already set up his easel.
The new painting was “Mueller-themed” in the same way a banana is “fruit-themed”: there might have been a layer to peel back, but for the most part, the thing was just the thing. In the work, which McNaughton had tentatively titled “Exposing the Truth,” Trump grabbed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III by the necktie, roughly pulling him close while Mueller shrank back in fear. In Trump’s other hand was a magnifying glass, which he held inches from Mueller’s face.
“It’s about how it’s all kind of coming to a head,” McNaughton explained. “How Trump is turning the tables on Mueller. It does have a bit of a bully feel — Trump is saying, ‘I’m not going to be the victim here.’ ” McNaughton thinks that the president will end up firing Mueller, and the painting reflects that.
As McNaughton sat at his easel, painting the shadows on Trump’s sleeve, he explained that this wasn’t his regular studio. Normally, he works from his basement, which is also where he stages paintings (a lanky neighbor is the regular stand-in for Obama; McNaughton’s brother is the recurring “Forgotten Man”). But as his fame has grown, his wife’s tolerance for the circus has shrunk; no interviews in the house.
McNaughton talked about his faith: the Mormon mission he did in Japan in his youth. He talked about working as a financial planner for eight years until he’d saved enough money to pursue art full time. He talked about his art training at Brigham Young University, where a frustrated professor chastised him for not taking instruction better.
He talked about how he wakes up every morning and turns on the news, perpetually seeking out angles for future projects.
“I have a great idea for an immigration-themed painting,” he said. “I have a great idea for a foreign-policy-themed painting. I have an idea for a Second Amendment-themed painting, and an idea that involves a lot of past presidents, and a Christmas painting that’s going to be crazy.”
A good bellwether for if a painting would sell well was whether someone like Rachel Maddow, the liberal MSNBC host, was offended by it. Her blog once held a cheeky caption contest for one of his works. “My sales spiked after,” McNaughton said cheerfully.
While watching McNaughton paint, we told him that “Exposing the Truth” seemed tame compared with his earlier works. Nobody was burning or tearing the Constitution. Abraham Lincoln was not weeping in the background. Jesus Christ wasn’t presiding over the halls of Congress.
Several hours later we realized these standards were off. If a painting of the president of the United States physically threatening the special prosecutor didn’t seem downright wacky, then what did that say about what passes for normal in this country?
It's perhaps not surprising to know that coastal critics don't believe in McNaughton's work. New York magazine's Jerry Saltz has called it "visually dead as a doornail." Stephen Colbert once did a whole segment lampooning the obvious metaphors in the painting: "Barack Obama represents President Obama," Colbert deadpanned. "The burning Constitution represents a Constitution that is on fire."
What isn’t entirely clear is whether McNaughton believed in it himself. The Trump world is populated by disciples — Michael Cohen, Diamond & Silk — whose ideology can seem both deeply felt as well as performative and opportunistic.
McNaughton’s art shapes perceptions of the president. It stokes anger in Trump’s supporters. But had McNaughton himself jumped on the Trump Train, or had he merely set up a lemonade stand at the station?
McNaughton didn’t support Trump at first; he liked Ted Cruz in the primaries. Ask what he thinks about Trump now, and he’s measured: “He gets away with stuff nobody else can get away with,” McNaughton says. “I laugh when I see it. I cringe and laugh at just about anything I see.” He says that his works do come from an emotional place but that he doesn’t view himself as a Trump supporter so much as a Trump observer.
“Take this painting,” he says at his makeshift studio, gesturing to “You Are Not Forgotten,” which hangs on an easel nearby. As a regal Trump gestures toward the Forgotten Man, who is planting a tree, a crowd of mostly veterans and law enforcement look on with approval. McNaughton asks, “Based on this painting, what do you think McNaughton thinks of Trump?”
The symbolism seems pretty bonk-you-on-the-head: tree as hope, Trump as savior, audience as grateful.
McNaughton says, No, that’s wrong. No, that’s not what he intended. “The point of the painting is that here are all the people who got him elected,” McNaughton says. “It’s, ‘Okay Mr. Trump, now you’re here, what are you going to do?’ ” The painting is not an endorsement of Trump, McNaughton says, so much as it’s a snapshot of the country in a moment in time. More than anything, he considers himself a “historical painter.”
“The way I look at it, these paintings will either be swept under the rug, or they’ll represent this era. The same with Trump, really.”
But if that’s true, it’s not really what comes across in his work. When people buy a painting, they don’t also buy McNaughton to come to their house and explain how “You Are Not Forgotten” is merely an observational statement about the demographics who elected Trump. The people who buy the painting are buying it because the message seems to be, “#MAGA #MAGA #MAGA,” in big neon lights.
This prompts a thoughtful interrogation into the meaning and purpose of art: How much ownership does a painter have over his messaging? How much should the artist’s intent inform the works’ perception?
Perhaps McNaughton is trying a little bit to have it both ways — to benefit from the fervor of Trump’s supporters, while leaving himself some plausible deniability about whether he’s a supporter himself. Perhaps it’s just about money?
To spend all day, every day, creating beatific images of Donald Trump would be exhausting, if you didn’t believe in Donald Trump at least a little. So McNaughton must believe in him at least a little.
But it’s complicated. As McNaughton talks, with some thoughtful sadness, about being the “whipping boy” of the art world he spent a lifetime hoping to join, he’s not the person you expect him to be.
Dickerson, the account manager, says that he doesn’t share the political views espoused in McNaughton’s paintings. Dickerson considers himself moderate-to-liberal, at least by Utah standards. “But,” he says, “I do have one of Jon’s paintings. I really like it. It’s in my office — should I go get it?”
He returns a few minutes later carrying a small square artwork, maybe 8 by 8 inches, that doesn’t look like anything else in the studio. It’s of John F. Kennedy. It’s a simple black-and-white sketch, and it’s accompanied by the JFK quote, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”
On McNaughton’s website, this painting does pop up, but it’s not featured prominently. The Kennedy drawing cost only $10, when it was for sale, but it’s no longer for sale. A note says that only 50 copies were made.
The next day, McNaughton brings a finished canvas of the Mueller painting back into the warehouse. He'd stayed up until 3 a.m. completing it, he says, and it's changed quite a bit. Now, there are faces watching the Trump-Mueller altercation: James B. Comey, Rod Rosenstein, Jeff Sessions. McNaughton has also changed the name: Instead of "Exposing the Truth," the painting is now titled "Expose the Truth" — a swap that makes the depiction seem less observational and more directive.
“A little more in-your-face,” McNaughton allows.
Whether he fully believes in what he’s doing or not, he’s chosen to lean into it, without hesitation. He spends the afternoon composing the text that will accompany the painting on his website: “Robert Mueller leads a special council of at least 17 partisan Democrat attorneys who have yet to find a single piece of evidence against the President, yet they ignore the mounting verifiable evidence against Russian collusion with the DNC and the Clinton Foundation,” the text says. “There comes a time when you have to take a stand to Expose the Truth!”
McNaughton puts the painting up for sale on his website, and almost immediately people respond on Twitter: “GREAT PAINTING.” “WAKE UP, AMERICA!” “Time to take this country back from the arrogant minions of the LEFT.”
Scrolling through the online response to “Expose the Truth” — the McNaughton fans who can’t wait to order their own copies, and it’s hard not to think back to one of McNaughton’s earlier statements, about how his paintings didn’t provide the “warm, happy” vibe that people typically want out of their living-room artwork.
Maybe his work doesn’t make people feel good in the way we’ve traditionally defined “feeling good.” It doesn’t provide a sense of calmness, peace, and amity toward our fellow man. But his art does make people feel good under the new definitions of feeling good. It provides a self-fulfilling sense of self-righteousness. It assuages people, telling them that they are upset about the right things. It feels good because feeling angry and justified is the new feeling good.
McNaughton used to paint something new every few months. He says that’s changed, recently — now he’s painting something every few weeks, because it seems like that’s how often there is appetite for a new outrage.
Before leaving, we ask McNaughton for a tour of the warehouse, where all of his stock is kept, and he provides a copy of an out-of-date calendar: 12 of his greatest hits, consolidated in one item. It’s too large to fit in a carry-on, and at the airport gate, a few fellow passengers ask to flip through it.
“Oh, that guy,” one says wearily.
“Oh, that guy!” says another. “I think he’ll be famous for a long time. I think he gets America right.”