He rose to fame painting Trump realism. He is doing just great with him gone.
2022 04 21
It’s been 15 months since Donald Trump left office, but the artist who rose to MAGA fame with his realistic portrayals of the 45th president and the movement he leads says he’s thriving.
Jon McNaughton is, perhaps, the most divisive political artist alive. Depending upon your view, he is either a laughing stock of realism or one of the most important truth tellers to pick up paint and brush.
His depictions of Trump have ricocheted across the internet, earning him equal parts mockery and praise. They’ve also earned him fans in the top echelons of political and media power. McNaughton says Trump himself tried to buy one of his paintings (it was already purchased by a “collector” in Texas) and that Sean Hannity has bought between six and 10.
So it stood to reason that with Trump having left the White House, McNaughton would find himself in lean years. He had, after all, lost his muse.
But in a wide-ranging recent interview with POLITICO, the artist says he’s never been busier. He said he sells between 10,000 to 20,000 different prints every year and his original pieces start at $12,000 and go up to $300,000.
Asked how fame has changed his life as a painter, he was succinct in his reply: “I just sell a lot more artwork.”
McNaughton’s post-Trump existence is, to a degree, an illustration of how the MAGA movement hasn’t receded with Trump out of office but, rather, morphed into something just as passionate but less centralized.
“There’s plenty of things to paint about, I’ve got my next seven or eight paintings planned and probably will do more in between,” he said. “And not many are Trump at this point, but that could change.”
McNaughton says a concept for a painting can percolate in his mind for up to a year or more and that, even with Trump at his club in Mar-a-Lago, there is a richness of topics from which to choose. He spends his free time scouring the Drudge Report and Twitter accounts of varying political ideologies to stay atop the news. He doesn’t watch Fox News often, he says, worrying that admitting as much may get him in trouble with his fan base. Instead, he tunes in to the BBC and Al Jazeera.
Among the post-presidential paintings that McNaughton has done include a piece called “Solitary Confinement” — that pictures a jailed man, head bowed, cast in ankle chains, a red MAGA hat on his head and the date of the November 2024 presidential election scratched against the wall.
“The idea of that painting came from when I was talking with [conspiracist filmmaker] Dinesh D’Souza,” he explained. “He kind of gave me the idea for the painting so I painted it.”
McNaughton first became famous in 2010 when his painting of “The Forgotten Man” — featuring Barack Obama stepping on the Constitution and all the former presidents standing behind him in front of the White House — went viral. He only did his first painting of Donald Trump after he had been elected. It was called “You Are Not Forgotten,” and it featured, among others, police officers, soldiers and veterans surrounding Trump, wearing his signature red tie.
Just like many Republicans half a decade ago, McNaughton wasn’t initially a Trump fan. He had originally liked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2016 primary, and only grew to appreciate Trump, he said, when he felt the then president got a raw deal from the press and his opponents.
“I was very cautious in my opinion about him, but over time a lot of people on the right feel like he was fighting for what we believed,” he said.
One turning point for McNaughton, 54, becoming a Trumpist painter was the Mueller investigation, which led him to paint “Expose the Truth.” The painting showed an angry-looking Trump grabbing former special counsel Robert Mueller by the tie and holding a magnifying glass close to his face. He said that was the moment when he “started to become more of a defender instead of just watching him.”
As a teenager, McNaughton moved with his family to Provo, Utah, where he still lives. He studied art on a scholarship at Brigham Young University. And just like many artists trying to survive, he initially went into a completely different field, selling mutual funds and doing financial planning. It was only in his early thirties that he became a landscape and religious painter full-time.
“I’m probably the most well known artist to come out of BYU, and that would probably make some angry if they heard that,” he said.
While contemporary art often is abstract, McNaughton’s is heavily realistic, with his figures highly rendered and almost looking a bit like stylized, fictional photographs. He said his inspirations were artists like Banksy, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. But his process is more structured than instinctual.
“I spend a lot of time conceptualizing what I want the image to be, I look for ideas that might seem a little bit more outrageous on the surface but yet they have serious undertones,” he explained. “[P]eople who don’t really go along with my way of thinking, they may laugh and they may get angry. So the artwork really creates a lot of different emotions in people so it starts with that. And from there, I’ll pose models, I build it up in stages and paintings can take anywhere from a week to two months to do.”
As a thematic matter, McNaughton says he paints from a posture of someone “not really trusting of authority.” He counts himself as a contrarian both in his paintings and his politics. Among other things, he questions the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and is not vaccinated, argues that the Civil War was not just about slavery but also states’ rights, believes Trump was the real winner in 2020 but said there’s no evidence to concretely back him up, and is straddling the fence about which party has his sympathies in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“What Putin did in invading a sovereign country is obviously horrible,” he explained. “I definitely feel for the Ukrainian people, but on the other hand the west and Ukraine and NATO have been poking the bear for years now.”
He’s done sketches of both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, in a reflection of the internal conflict he feels about the war, he had bigger artistic aspirations for the latter.
“I had an idea for a Putin painting where I was going to have him gripping a dove with an olive branch in one hand almost squeezing the death out of it, and then holding a human skull in the other hand and he has this kind of look that he has a black eye and he’s wondering what he wants to do,” McNaughton explained.
With creative impulses like these, it’s no surprise McNaughton has been hit with a torrent of criticism over the years. Stephen Colbert pointed out that on McNaughton’s website you could scroll across one famous painting to find figures called the “Liberal News Reporter,” “Satan” and “Mr. Hollywood.” Art critic Jerry Saltz called his pieces “visually dead as a doornail” and “typical propaganda art, drop-dead obvious in message.”
Befitting the era of polarization, however, McNaughton has also become celebrated and revered on the right. While he doesn’t take commissions, he said luminaries in the conservative media world sometimes approach him with ideas, including a producer for Hannity and D’Souza. This January, he said, he had a “somewhat private conversation” with Trump at a fundraiser in Texas.
“He didn’t know I was coming at the time but when I walked into the room and told him who I was, he lit up and he was happy to see me and we had a good conversation,” he recalled. “We talked a lot about [the art].”