The day after Donald Trump stunned the predictors and won the presidency, Sean Hannity showed his Fox News viewers what he thought “this election is all about." He filled the screen with a painting depicting Barack Obama defiantly standing on the Constitution while a dejected man in a hooded jacket sits slumped on a park bench, ignored by the president.
The 2011 painting was called the "The Forgotten Man," a phrase Trump himself had used in his victory speech the night before when he pledged that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Hannity was so taken with the painting by Utah artist Jon McNaughton that he called him that day and bought the 40” x 60” original.
"The people of Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, the people of Michigan, Pennsylvania and all across this country, they saw this election for what it was: massive government failure, a massive decline, a precipitous decline in this country, and men and women — our fellow citizens — forgotten like that guy on the bench," Hannity explained on his show after buying the painting.
It was just about the best publicity you could get for McNaughton, who spent most of his career painting landscapes and religious-heavy imagery before finding his calling in political art. McNaughton has since embraced his “Forgotten Man” success and become the most prolific illustrator of the Trump culture wars, with paintings that alternately bemuse and trigger liberals.
“I'm not necessarily trying to trigger liberals; I'm trying to inspire,” McNaughton, 50, said in an interview with VICE News.
His most recent MAGA-inspired paintings include an updated version of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” but with the general and his continental troops substituted by Trump and his top administration officials, called “Crossing the Swamp”; a sentimental Trump hugging a tattered American flag while standing on a football field in a packed stadium; a physical confrontation between Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller in the U.S. Capitol; and, of course, Trump reaching out to his own Forgotten Man.
“You know, my paintings are not meant to be subtle,” McNaughton said. “I want to create an image that will be an icon, that will last, that people, once they see it, they will never forget it. You know, that's the kind of thing I'm shooting for.”
Or, as the Washington Post described his work, “It’s pure id art.”
Hannity wasn’t the only one highlighting the painting after Trump’s victory. White House aides remember pictures of it ricocheting around their phones after Election Day. Even The New Yorker analyzed the painting shortly after the election, writing in its classic high-brow style: “‘The Forgotten Man’ points to the rise and possible consolidation of a new nationalist, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-élitist élite, one that co-opts modern art’s cynosures of energy and novelty to express and inspire a militantly rightist agenda.”
McNaughton says original paintings like “Forgotten Man” sell for about $300,000, but he wouldn’t say how much Hannity paid, except that it was less than that. Beyond the expensive originals, McNaughton also has a robust business selling lithos and canvas prints in various sizes ranging from $29 to $705, with new paintings increasingly selling out because he can’t print them fast enough. All canvas prints of “Crossing the Swamp” are currently sold out, for example.
The unapologetic Trumpian paintings have even earned the artist an occasional spot on “Fox & Friends,” one of the president’s favorite shows. “I know that I'll probably meet [Trump] at some point,” McNaughton said.
The Vietnamese government even contacted him about commissioning a painting to give to President Trump, according to McNaughton.
Hannity originally told McNaughton that he would give the painting to then-President-elect Trump to put up in the White House. Asked if the painting was hanging somewhere in the building, a spokesperson looped in her counterpart from First Lady Melania Trump’s team, who said, “That is not something we would comment on.”
Hannity did not directly respond to requests for comment, but he indicated in November 2016 that he might not give the painting to Trump after all.
Whether his work is hanging in the White House or not, McNaughton’s virality seems to increase with every painting. “I get probably 20 to 30 emails a week with people throwing ideas [for subjects] at me,” he said.
After “Crossing the Swamp” came out last month and grabbed some headlines, a former WH official told VICE News he took a deep dive into McNaughton’s website. “Some are kinda corny, but he’s good. I actually fucked with my girlfriend and told her I bought, like, three of them for our apartment — and she was not pleased,” the official said, adding that “Crossing the Swamp” was so good he might actually buy a print.
McNaughton’s next painting, he said cryptically, is all about the Democrats and the midterms. And he is constantly tinkering with his concepts before he finally publishes. When he started “Crossing the Swamp,” McNaughton said he was going to have Nancy Pelosi’s head rising from the murky water. Instead, he opted for alligators as a metaphor for all the “swamp creatures” trying to overturn Trump’s boat.
“I think the guy is having an enormous impact on the country in a positive way, although he's bringing about a lot of reactionary violence from the Left since they don't know what else to do at this point,’ McNaughton said.
Perhaps channeling Trump, McNaughton seems to relish criticism or indifference from left-leaning artists who dominate the field and seems to enjoy the role of provocateur. “I think that artists crave acceptance. They do within the art community and they put on a show that, you know, I'm the rebel artist on the cutting edge.”
A former art major on scholarship at the Mormon Church–led Brigham Young University, McNaughton spent most of his career being apolitical, usually painting landscapes. That changed after the 2008 presidential election when McNaughton, frustrated with both John McCain and Barack Obama, painted “One Nation Under God,” a scene that manages to include Jesus, Satan, George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, JFK, and dozens more.
That painting created a small sensation on the Right, but it also made McNaughton’s gallery partner uncomfortable with its politically polarizing message. The disagreement was such that McNaughton eventually bought out his partner several years ago. “It was just time for me to do my own thing, and since then I've just mostly done the political artwork,” McNaughton said.
And McNaughton expects to be painting plenty more in the years before the 2020 election.
“I've constantly got a list of paintings that are sort of formulating in my mind,” he said. “I’ve probably got about 30 to 40 ideas that I'm working on.”
Cover: "Crossing the Swamp," "Expose the Truth," and "Forgotten Man" by Jon McNaugton.