“He’s either going down as the best president ever, or the worst president ever,” the artist Jon McNaughton was saying in mid April over a breakfast of buttermilk pancakes at a cafe in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The 45-year-old, Utah-based painter, whose caustic political images have earned the patronage of Sean Hannity (who owns two McNaughton originals) and the mockery of Stephen Colbert, had become a fixture of the 2016 election cycle, his painstakingly crafted acrylics earning a place of honor alongside memes like Pepe the Frog and other defining emblems of the Trump era. But at that moment, with the administration’s 100-day anniversary looming on the horizon, the man whose painting “The Forgotten Man” had so perfectly summed up the forces that propelled the 45th president into office (and done so with uncanny prescience, five years before the election) was nonetheless expressing some misgivings about the new chief executive.
In particular, McNaughton was skeptical of Trump’s April 7 decision to lob 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase, an apparent one-eighty from his “America first” campaign message. “As horrible as it is using chemical weapons, I feel like we get involved in too many wars,” he said. “I don’t like being the policeman of the world.” While McNaughton supports the president’s goal of strengthening the military, he went on, “I don’t like America intervening in other countries’ business. That bothers me. ”
McNaughton quickly added that he still considered Obama’s more passive approach to international relations to be far worse. “It seems like his foreign policy was to try to appease as many people as he could,” he suggested.
“Look, just because he ran on the Republican ticket doesn’t mean he has a free pass with me.”
That said, McNaughton didn’t seem particularly interested in talking about the man who’d inspired so many of his best known works. In fact, he said, he hadn’t really thought about Obama in six months. With Trump firmly ensconced in the Oval Office and conservatives running things on Capitol Hill and holding a majority on the Supreme Court, the pieces seemed to be in place for a right-wing revolution. And yet, somehow it wasn’t quite happening. “It’s going to take time,” McNaughton said with a sigh. “I mean even the Republicans are divided on some things.” He wasn’t kidding. This was in April — approximately several hundred news cycles ago — and the latest reports out of Washington were unsettling. The American Health Care Act had just been withdrawn due to a fierce dispute among GOP factions.
“I could understand a little bit of both sides,” McNaughton said, adding that he expected they would go back to the drawing board.
They did, and a few weeks later, a revised version narrowly passed the House. “It has to go the Senate now, and it will probably be totally be eaten alive,” McNaughton told me by phone a few weeks later. “By the time it’s done in the Senate, they’ll probably have to start over again. I mean it’s just a mess. It’s really disappointing. But I think a lot of Republicans were scared. They just thought, ‘We’ve got to pass something — this is ridiculous! So they’re like, My constituents will kill me if I don’t vote for it. Trump will probably say I’m a jerk in his next Twitter feed.
“They better do something soon,” he added, “or it’s going to hurt the Republican Party. Part of the problem is the way they do things in Washington. I think there’s a good ol’ boys club. I think they’re playing the same games that they always play. But this is not good for Trump, and the American people are very impatient.”
Back in the café, McNaughton took a sip of orange juice and gently put the new president on notice. “You know, I wasn’t just mad at Obama because he was Obama,” he said. “I mean, I’ll be just as mad at Trump if he does things that I don’t agree with.”
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McNaughton’s work is often compared to that of Norman Rockwell due to its realism and patriotic themes. But where Rockwell was characterized by a heartwarming folksiness — lending even highly charged political issues, like the battles over civil rights, a gauzy sense of reassurance — McNaughton takes a more polemical approach. Although his paintings are studded with elaborate Easter eggs and hidden references, his overall intent is never soft-pedaled. Indeed, his best-known pieces are aggressively dark. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to reconcile them with the genial, soft-spoken, middle-aged man who created them. With his Ned Flanders-like demeanor and an easy smile, the artist is as serene and low-key as his work is combative and doom-laden.
“People think I’m a hardliner,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve done interviews where they’ve been disappointed afterwards, like, ‘Man, I thought you were going to rip them apart!’”
A father of eight, who makes his home outside of Provo, Utah, McNaughton had come to Baton Rouge — a two-day van ride with his 23-year-old son, Nathan — to unveil his latest work. Titled “Justice for All,” the painting features Moses standing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building, surrounded by a collection of historical and contemporary figures, from George Washington to Condoleezza Rice and Chris Kyle. In the foreground, a black slave kneels before James Madison, begging for his freedom, a tangle of broken shackles at his feet. Behind him, a peeved-looking Antonin Scalia rips some misbegotten legal decision in two.
The piece had been commissioned more than a year earlier by a local political action committee as a gift for the state’s hard-charging attorney general, Jeff Landry, and purchased with left-over funds earmarked for his transition. McNaughton wouldn’t say what he’d been paid for the work, though he said it was “a significant amount.” Landry’s plan was to hang the painting (actually a duplicate, to protect the original from vandalism) in the lobby of the Department of Justice.
“This is not good for Trump, and the American people are very impatient.”
McNaughton thought the painting might spark a heated debate. “I think it’ll be controversial, obviously, because of some of the people that are in it, like the black slave walking up to the Bill of Rights,” he said. “I think it’ll be a little divided.” Landry’s decision to hang the painting in a government space recalled Judge Roy Moore’s epic struggle in the early 2000s to display a monument to the Ten Commandments in front of the Alabama judicial building. The move was ruled a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, eventually leading to Moore’s removal from office. But it also made him a conservative hero and fueled a successful run to become chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. One couldn’t help wondering if Landry, known for his gutsy and attention-grabbing political style and his many throwdowns with the state’s Democratic governor, expected McNaughton’s painting to spark a similar uproar. “Oh, I guess some folks might holler,” the attorney general told me. “You never know. But I’ve got a pretty thick skin.”
Later that afternoon, the painting rested on a stand in a conference room just off the building’s lobby, draped demurely in a black sheet, as local politicians, including political figures, business leaders, government staffers and clergy assembled for the unveiling. Newly minted Rep. Mike Johnson made the rounds. Hawaiian Punch and chocolate chip pan cookies had been set out in the rear of the room. Eventually, C.L. Bryant stepped to the podium. A preacher and conservative radio personality based in nearby Shreveport, Bryant was the only attendee to actually be featured in the painting. (A former head of a local NAACP chapter, who later joined the Tea Party, he is also the subject of another McNaughton portrait “Runaway Slave.”)
With the artist standing beside him looking a little bashful, Bryant praised him in soaring terms. “Friends, in these perilous times, it is an honor for all of us to be in the presence of someone like Jon McNaughton, who is able to capture and convey the greatness of our land, the greatest nation on the face of the Earth, the greatest success story the world has ever known.”
After McNaughton unveiled the painting to warm applause, the attorney general rose to speak. He’d been a fan of the artist’s work for years, he said, having purchased a print of “One Nation Under God” — which depicts Jesus Christ himself revealing the U.S. Constitution to an audience of thankful patriots and cowering liberals — prior to his 2010 run for Congress. “I asked the good Lord to deliver me through that campaign,” he said, “and I would put that painting in my office.” True to his word, after he won, Landry did display the piece in his House office throughout his two-year term. Turning the audience’s attention to the new painting, he pointed out that Moses had been “the first lawgiver.” Then, he declared forcefully, “This portrait is going to be hung in this building. Because this is the Department of Justice. And without having the original lawgiver in a Department of Justice, the building is empty. It is truly empty.”
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McNaughton was born in Mesa, Arizona, the son of a high-school-football coach and a homemaker, members of the Church of Latter-day Saints. He discovered painting early on, and while his parents didn’t quite know what to make of his hobby, they didn’t discourage it either. When he was in high school, his picture of a bowhunter walking alone through a field of aspens earned him first place in a statewide competition, and not long after, he won a full art scholarship to Brigham Young University. It was there that he first discovered how out of step he was with prevailing art world trends. Though BYU, a Mormon institution, is hardly bastion of liberal elitism (its honor code bans premarital sex and facial hair, and requires abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine), McNaughton said the art department was mostly aligned with the rest of academia. “It’s true you can’t have beards and all kinds of crazy stuff, but as far as the professors and the way they do things, they were pretty much in line with a lot of other schools,” he explained. “They were more like modern artists, and I didn’t fit in.” At the time, he favored landscapes. “Not that I have anything against modern art,” he added, “it’s just not my way of expressing myself.”
After graduation, McNaughton found work as a financial planner, pursuing his painting hobby on weekends. But after eight years, he quit to become a full-time artist and began selling his pieces in local galleries. It wasn’t until 2008 that he turned his attention to political themes. “The day I found out McCain got the nomination, I was really bummed,” he recalled. “I ended up supporting him because he was the Republican nominee, but I didn’t like him. It was right after that, I had an epiphany, and I saw this image, ‘One Nation Under God.’ I could see the whole thing clearly in my mind. I sketched it out and told my business partner I was going to paint this image, and he thought I was nuts. He said, ‘You’re not going to sell any of these.’” McNaughton did it anyway — enlisting friends and neighbors to pose, photographing them in costume, and fitting the pieces together to build the finished composition, which echoes the traditional portrayal of the Last Judgment, with Jesus surrounded by his court of angels (or patriots), the good and the wicked at his feet.
For a few months, the painting sat in the gallery mostly unnoticed, proving the business partner right. Then, a handful of students from McNaughton’s alma mater started mocking it on social media. Bloggers jumped into the fray, and before long, the piece had gone viral. The same painting found itself in the spotlight again a year later, when a liberal-leaning BYU art professor persuaded the university bookstore to stop carrying prints of “One Nation Under God” despite its status as one of the store’s top-selling works. Furious at what he viewed as the school’s liberal bias, McNaughton pulled his entire line of prints from the store and wrote a blog post explaining his decision. The post was picked up nationally, the painting again went viral, and despite negative criticism from certain quarters, sales exploded.
“I’ve had truckloads of negativity and anger directed against me,” he allowed with a smile.
McNaughton’s most attention-getting works have tended to be the ones featuring Pres. Barack Obama, whether he’s stepping on the Constitution or setting it on fire, cheerfully teeing off in front of a mushroom cloud, fiddling while the Capitol burns, or simply showboating amid a shower of dollar bills while average Americans in chains look on dejectedly. The most contentious piece in this series may be “Obamanation,” which, as the artist wrote in a the self-published book “The Art of Jon McNaughton,” “aims to showcase all the subtle, mindless, radical, and dangerous atrocities of the Obama administration up until 2012” — from Occupy Wall Street and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to the use of TelePrompTers and “toilet humor.” But as fiercely disdainful as those pieces are, McNaughton insisted he felt no particular malice toward the former president. “In some ways I don’t see him as much different than Bush, or people like John McCain and Lindsay Graham,” he said. “People have accused me of having some racial vendetta because he’s a black president. The guy is very likable as a human being. He has a great personality, he’s a great speaker. It was his policies that incited so many people.”
The artist’s less heavy-handed pieces, though, are arguably more powerful and haunting. Take for example “Peace Is Coming,” in which Jesus strides across a battlefield as a collection of soldiers from throughout world history (a Zulu, a Samurai, a Roman Legionnaire, a bloodied Crusader, and even a Nazi) lay down their arms in awe. The Iraq War is represented by a kneeling U.S. soldier from the 101st Airborne Division. The man who modeled for McNaughton as the soldier is himself a veteran: Cody Henscheid, an Army specialist from Utah, who received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart after the truck he was traveling in hit an improvised explosive device in Iraq and he rescued a wounded buddy. The painting conveys not only the agony of war but hints at its futility as well: No matter what side you’re fighting for, it suggests, the bloodshed is somehow the same, and the horror goes on and on — at least until Christ’s return.
“I’ve had people break down in tears at that painting,” McNaughton said. “It really connects with people that have been in the military or have family in the military and are Christian. That painting just melts them, they love it.”
That piece and several of McNaughton’s other works includes a curious symbol, the meaning of which may elude some viewers. Jesus’ robe bears a golden image of a Tree of Life, a subtle hint at McNaughton’s faith. The artist has a complicated relationship with the Mormon Church. As a young man, he served a two-year mission in Japan, going door to door in a short-sleeve shirt and tie, sharing the teachings of Joseph Smith with polite but mostly uncomprehending Japanese. He credits the experience with teaching him that “there’s a lot more to the world than what I thought,” he said.
“I pretty much grew up in a bubble,” McNaughton added, “So when I got back I really started trying to learn about a lot of things outside of my upbringing and I got interested in politics and in trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong, the secrets of the universe.” He broke into a grin. “And I found that I have a very contrarian personality.” Although he still considers himself a Latter-day Saint, he added, “I’m just a little more open-minded to certain things than a lot of members of the church are. I believe that you really have to stand up for what you believe politically, whereas a lot of Latter-day Saints are interested in how things appear. Like, during the election, a lot of them wouldn’t vote for Trump because of his demeanor. They prefer someone a little more clean-cut. But I have a lot of friends outside the LDS church and I have a lot of friends in the church, so I’m kind of walking a tight line there.”
“You know, I wasn’t just mad at Obama because he was Obama. I mean, I’ll be just as mad at Trump if he does things that I don’t agree with.”
Although McNaughton considers Mormon painter Arnold Friberg one of his chief inspirations, he pointed out that not all of his own works align with LDS theology. For instance, in “He Is Risen” and “Angel of Liberty,” McNaughton depicts angels with wings, which is considered a no-no. “It’s kind of weird,” he said. “Some people gave me a hard time about that, but I think angels with wings are actually kind of cool.”
Ultimately, he said, he prefers to focus on areas of agreement between mainstream Christianity and the Mormon church. “It’s all about Jesus Christ anyway,” he pointed out.
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When I touched base with McNaughton a few weeks after the unveiling, he sounded a little weary. The media hadn’t really picked up on the new painting, which had been revealed with such fanfare in Baton Rouge. Even Jeff Landry’s liberal opponents had failed to take note of the provocative acrylic hanging defiantly in the building’s lobby. “It definitely hasn’t gone viral to the extent that we’d hoped yet,” the artist said. “Maybe it has to percolate there for awhile. My guess is eventually somebody going to have a fuss about it, seeing that it’s not exactly your typical ‘separation of church and state’–type message. We’ll see what happens.”
I asked him what he’d thought of the news lately.
“Did we go to war with North Korea yet?” he asked with a laugh. “It kind of makes me nervous. I don’t know what to think of it.”
McNaughton was less troubled by the president’s controversial decision to fire FBI director James Comey. “I think the guy was throwing his weight around, and the Trump camp was like, ‘You know what? This guy’s just a pain in the butt,’” he theorized. “But if you look at the vindictiveness—everyone saying he did a bad job? That tells me Comey had probably said or done something that irritated the crap out of Trump and his group.”
Overall, he gave the president high marks, but there were some caveats. “He’s kind of backpedaled on things that he said during election process, which is disconcerting,” the artist explained. “He’s become a little bit more soft on the wall, and he’s become soft with Iran and closing that deal down. And putting Steve Bannon out, who was more of a nationalist, and leaning more on his kids, who seem more centrist in their views, I don’t know. … One of the reasons a lot of people voted for Trump is he seemed to be outside of the establishment. But he’s done some things that make me wonder if that’s the case.” Hiring five senior staffers from Goldman Sachs, for instance. “I do feel uncomfortable about that, because they’re part of the swamp,” he said. “I don’t like them. And a lot of them were tied in with Hillary.”
Then again, he added, things are constantly in motion. “I read the news and I’m just like, ‘Wow, what’s going on?’ Because I don’t know. Just because he ran on the Republican ticket doesn’t mean he has a free pass with me,” McNaughton emphasized. “He’s definitely done some things that make me nervous.”
At the moment, McNaughton is hard at work on a new painting — his first to include Trump. Despite his recent qualms, he says it will be be a flattering piece. “I probably wouldn’t paint something negative unless he really was just going against everything he got voted in for,” he said. “At that point I would use my painting to speak out. I’m still cautiously optimistic, but then again, I remember when I was so optimistic about Bush. ‘Bush is wonderful! Look how he’s going after those terrorists!’ Then when I saw some of the stuff happening in Iraq, when I saw the bailouts, when I saw the Patriot Act, I was like, ‘This isn’t right.’ So I don’t know.”
McNaughton added that the goal of all of his political work is to distill the moment in the country’s history. “So if people want to know what the heck was going on at this time, they look at my paintings and go, ‘Well, there was some crazy stuff going on in America,’” he said. “A hundred years from now, fifty years from now, they’ll either say, ‘Wow, he had it pretty right,’ or ‘Gosh, he was out in Looney Town!’” Most of all, he added, he wanted to make people think. “In today’s society, we’re just blasted with visual images. And the more out-there they are, the more popular they are. But I don’t want to become a meme.” He pronounced the word mee-mee. “That’s why I put so much into these paintings. You can spend ten minutes just going through them. You can’t do that with a meme.”
And yet, the artist admitted to occasionally wondering whether he’d be more successful if he dropped the politics altogether. “People think that just because some picture gets a lot of publicity you’re going to make a ton of money on it,” he said, “but who’s going to buy a picture of Obama burning the Constitution and hang it in their living room?” (Interestingly, Sean Hannity owns the original of that piece.)
“Politics is crappy,” he said with a sigh. “In many ways, I hate having to paint some of the things I do. But when I get real passionate about something, that’s the way I express myself.”