Utah-based artist Jon McNaughton is a zealous Donald Trump admirer, alternately depicting the president as a gallant statesman, an impassioned defender of tattered American flags, and a unwavering opponent of losers. Though McNaughton has been lauded by Trump confidant and esteemed art critic Sean Hannity and conservative news outlets, his work has earned him a fair share of detractors as well. On the artist bio on his website, he divides his audience into three groups: “Those who like [his art], those who hate it, and those who simply don’t understand.”
McNaughton’s latest work, called “Teach a Man to Fish,” depicts a gentler side of the President. The U.S. president is seen sitting on a park bench, instructing a dopey-looking white fellow on the basics of fishing. Because evidently his liberal college education isn’t going to put food on the table, the forlorn college bro has cast aside his required textbooks — “Socialism” and “Justice Warrior” are the titles on the spines — to gaze longingly at Trump’s impressive tackle box. Ever the patient teacher, the saintly Donald extends a golden fish hook to the spiritually bereft man. I’m not sure if Trump has ever gone fishing in real life, putting aside his legendary affection for "fish delight" sandwiches. But his formal attire in this imaginary scenario suggests he’d be a highly overdressed fisherman.
“There has not been a better time in our lifetime to prosper than today,” McNaughton says of the inspiration behind the work in an explanatory video, talking over inspirational music and patriotic stock images. “The economy is growing. And Trump has suggested through his educational policy that people can be taught a skilled vocation,” he adds, perhaps referring to the time Trump conflated community colleges with vocational schools.
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
McNaughton’s optimism about the nation’s economic and political conditions represents a complete 180 from his earlier work. In addition to his Thomas Kinkadesque landscapes and reverent religious illustrations, the pro-Trump painter’s previous political renderings featured Washington D.C. in ruins, the U.S. Constitution in flames, and the world getting nuked—all on Barack Obama’s watch, of course.
According to McNaughton’s strange version of American history, during the Obama years, no man suffered more than “The Forgotten Man,” a symbolic everyman who first appears in a 2011 namesake painting, where he is shown sitting dejectedly on a park bench, flanked by every president ever as Obama, a recurring villain in McNaughton’s world, defiantly tramples the Constitution. Like the dopey-looking fellow in the fishing scene, the Forgotten Man is white — a fact that McNaughton’s critics have found, understandably, outrageous. Even more egregiously, he appeared again when McNaughton unveiled a 2012 canvas called “Wake Up America,” which sees a joyous Obama overlooking a crowd of mostly-white Americans bound in heavy chains. “Now, more than ever,” McNaughton explained in the caption, “each American must make a choice: we must unlock the shackles that enslave us, or will we give up the greatest gift we have our freedom [sic].”
Responding to vociferous backlash on his website, McNaughton clarifies that the symbolic character “represents every man, woman and child of every color and creed who is an American.” He provides further insight into his choices in his free ebook: “A black man once asked me when observing the Forgotten Man painting why I didn’t make the man black or another color. I told him if I had, the painting would have immediately had racial undertones. He suggested I should have made the man rainbow colors so nobody would be left out.”
For unexplained reasons, things start to look up for the Forgotten Man in 2012’s “The Empowered Man”— though maybe it’s because Republican presidential candidate (and current U.S. Senate candidate) Mitt Romney was up in the polls at the time. This one seems like a true sequel to the original Forgotten Man painting: Now, the Forgotten Man has leapt from his park bench and wrested the crumpled Constitution away from a shocked, Constitution-trampling Obama. “It makes no difference whether you are a man or woman, how old you are, or the color of your skin,” McNaughton maintains. “You must decide to no longer be silent, to get off your bench, pick up that Constitution and hold it high in the air as a standard for the world to see.”
The Forgotten Man was conspicuously silent for several years after this 2012 painting was unveiled. But he finally reemerged, five years later and seven months into Trump’s presidency, in McNaughton’s 2017 painting, “You Are Not Forgotten.” The crowd of dead presidents is replaced by an assembly of all-American heroes and victims, and Obama has been replaced by Trump, who is crushing a snake underfoot, not the Constitution (so much for “don’t tread on me”). As Trump peers paternalistically into the distance, the Forgotten man kneels down off his signature park bench to nurture a small plant in the soil. (Also I guess he has a wife and daughter now? Congratulations are long overdue)
It’s a mystery to me why this Forgotten Man’s life has rebounded so drastically since Trump’s election. Just a few years ago, McNaughton opined that “Every man, woman and child in America is enslaved to our national debt” — and lamented that “as a conservative, I’m fed up with the corruption in Washington.” Now, under Trump, the national debt is still growing, and the U.S. trade deficit has continued to increase; and whatever corruption existed back then, at least the last president never paid a porn star hush money or fired an FBI director for investigating him. As for the Forgotten Man and his prospects, while the unemployment rate remains low, job growth has slowed, the number of insured Americans has dropped precipitously, and reliance on food stamps — which Trump wants to replace with an ill-advised Harvest Box — is up.
For all of McNaughton’s enumerated gripes with the Obama presidency, you’d think it would take longer than a few months for the Forgotten Man to recover. Heck, Obama never even taught him how to fish! But in the end I suppose all it took was a change of presidents, and we all lived happily ever after. The end.