Sound familiar? McNaughton has put his finger on the pulse of Trump’s GOP, for whom outrage toward the opposition and respect for the old ways, vaguely construed, go hand in hand. The old ways, and the values embedded in them, are precisely what the MAGA movement believes is in danger of being lost if progressivism advances unchecked. It wants to slow things down and map out a future based on the familiar, ostensibly simpler contours of the past. But lacking a coherently articulated platform, the MAGA movement relies on the affiliated to just know when greatness was, who made it, and which values should be restored. It’s an exclusive club that is consolidated with each hashtag, retweet, and share that merrily mocks the opposition or pledges allegiance to Trump. McNaughton’s painted memes not only show his understanding of the Trumpist GOP then, but also contribute to the in-group consolidation process by supplying imagery that people can rally around.
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In The Con-Artist, painted during the 2016 campaign, McNaughton foisted Hillary Clinton onto Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). He then invited followers on Facebook to identify “ten names hidden in the painting of those who have suffered under her eyes.” They had no trouble. “Only ten names?” one person asked. In The Masterpiece, which McNaughton released on Twitter in August, Trump sits under the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic cathedral, palette in hand. But we can’t see the painting on his easel because, as McNaughton explained on his website and in his social-media posts, the painting represents Trump’s “greatest achievements,” and these have yet to be revealed. All that we see beneath a heavy crimson curtain is a corner of vaguely impressionistic brushwork, patches of blue and green.
The painting “captures the spirit, determination and love [Trump] has for America and all of us,” one of McNaughton’s fans wrote on his Facebook page. His critics, naturally, saw it differently and filled in the blanks with memes of Trump unveiling his tax returns, a Nazi flag, the Statue of Liberty in flames, Bill Clinton in the blue dress. Of course, by mocking McNaughton, liberals do as much work as his fans to circulate the work.
McNaughton might just be the most talked about, liked, disliked, shared, hashtagged, and retweeted artist working today. Artists who are N.Y./L.A. famous may have the respect of the art world and stellar gallery representation, but McNaughton has them beat in terms of populist buzz.
And the fact that McNaughton’s paintings are made for circulation on social media doesn’t mean they won’t endure. Historians of the future will look at our digital habits to make sense of the Trump era, especially since social media has played—and will likely continue to play—a crucial role in deciding the outcomes of political contests. There McNaughton’s work will be, waiting to tell posterity the tale of our time. He may never get a show in Chelsea, or be chosen to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, but he won’t care. McNaughton’s ambitions are greater than that.