Trump, Burt and Loni (Oil on canvas, 2019)

The very beautiful, very exclusive religion of presidential art

Ridiculing authoritarianism kitsch is such a shameless gimme. Blind and machined atavism—a heroically muscular pastiche of neoclassical-fascist and socialist realism that was buried the minute it became the default art of Ayn Rand paperbacks, like the classic O, Future Man! Dish Me The Orb—the fruit is low and fat. Spiritually, it says nothing, because it believes nothing. We should not overindulge in mocking it, which is why I come here only to ask questions.

Jon McNaughton, a Utah-based artist, has been painting absurd right-wing art for years, in a Neo-Rockwell style that leans more on George Lincoln. You may remember him from his 2011 painting, The Forgotten Man, which took Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s phrasing for the most economically abandoned in this country and rendered it instead as a white dad wearing $250 worth of Timberland and apparently being physically exhausted by the trampling of his abstract set of partisan interpretations of a document. He is also being haunted by 44 apparitions, four of whom stand around him, gesturing in disbelief, as if to say, “Look at this whacko imagining us.”

One apparition, Barack Obama, ignorantly stands on a charter that has metastasized and expanded and contracted repeatedly, for political expedience, for centuries. The other—who one can only assume is James Madison, because he is the “father of the Constitution,” and because he seems relatively short—stands behind him, beseechingly, as if to say, “Bro, what the fuck, bro? Bro? What the fuck?” Although, it could be someone else. If McNaughton really wanted to show the righteous apoplexy to which Obama has driven Jemmy Madison, and if he really wanted us to be sure that was Jemmy Madison, he should’ve had him writhing on the ground mid-seizure. But, again, I only come here to ask questions.

One question not worth asking is who buys this shit. Prints of McNaughton’s images that achieve what you’d think of as a reasonable size for a painting run into the hundreds of dollars, and tackiness is usually too expensive to be a chosen aesthetic mode for the working class, so yee-haw class jokes can go screw. You can take any couple in America with two college degrees, over $150,000 per year in combined income and a kitchen trendily appointed in soft-close cupboards, demi-bullnose granite counters, tile backsplash, motion-sensitive undermount cupboard lights, a gas-powered stove beneath a brushed-metal hood, a touch-faucet and sink in a granite island, and in the adjacent room you are still very likely to find some extremely visually dire shit, like a framed wedding photo where the happy couple are ensconced by a semi-transparent overlay of a champagne flute.

But it’s worth questioning McNaughton’s latest work, National Emergency, both because art is meant to provoke questions, and because otherwise we could just be talking about Ilhan Omar and rehashing plenty of other thoughtful takes that do it better. So lemme ask you this:

  1. Why would Bernie hold the Chinese flag, when all the best cheap GOP oppo against him involves his visiting the Soviet Union?

  2. Shouldn’t trampling on the American flag be implied by holding up other flags, and if you need the redundancy that much, why don’t Warren, Schumer, Pelosi and Clinton move forward so the people behind them can trample more flag?

  3. When did Barack Obama inject his face with stem cells from Jason Robards?

  4. Who would you want to warn with an Immigrant Crossing sign, and why would you use government dollars to pay to warn them anyway?

  5. If the wall has already been built and is currently being built—to the point that all conceptions and incarnations of the wall exist at all necessary points of presidential speeches—then why wouldn’t you have built and be building it in the same places severe enough to need immigration signage?

  6. Why are Chuck Schumer’s knees, shins and feet 18 inches in front of his torso?

  7. Why does Trump have his back turned to a bunch of weaklings?

But—and obviously this question, like the others, represents little more than an interrogation of the choir—what would Donald Trump, even the version who seems to have somehow lost 85 pounds, even pray to?

Obviously, it’s not God. Nobody who heard him refer to “2nd Corinthians” as, and this is an exact quote, “Corinthians: The Deuce” thinks it’s God. And it’s not to mercy and guidance, because as Adam Serwer exasperatingly perfectly framed it, the cruelty is the point. If you make a multi-divorcé who can probably wallpaper a decent-sized guest bathroom with abortion paperwork your avenging angel, his utility stems from something other than piety and reflection. The point of action is that relentless motion obviates needing to think, so a still tableau neuters its own reverence. He’s not a vessel, he’s just a tool. You can’t pour anything into a hammer, but why would you want to?

There is no inner monologue to a human who runs Trump’s cognitive spectrum from President Grandpa to Vegas Führer. You already know what he’s thinking. This is what makes scoring off authoritarianism kitsch so cheap and easy, and, yes, I apologize, but also, no, I don’t. You could write Donald Trump’s silent missive to God in your sleep, because he’s the only one he recognizes, and the only thing he does all day is talk to his future self via the DVR, as if his propaganda network is his phone’s voice memo app.

I want there to be three prayers here, but there aren’t.

I want the first one to be a semi-detailed action plan for vengeance against American law enforcement and public institutions and safeguards in counterpoint to a semi-detailed set of opportunistic and outrageously corrupt acts that have further sabotaged a sick semi-democracy. There is yearning there, and succor, in believing that things are bad because a few people could intervene to make them bad, which suggests that a few people who are not bad is all that stands between now and restoring the status quo ante of “everything is shit, but not as fast, and everyone in power is guilty, but not so much.” Fatal mediocrity is possible in our lifetimes.

Failing that, I want the second to be so nakedly opportunistic that the natural 98 percent effluence of the administration stems from 2 percent monomaniacal greed—as if everything that happens everyday at least makes sense as forgotten downstream waste from an exquisitely focused capacity for being crooked rather than some apex Stooges clusterfuck. Like at one point there was a midnight telephone call that involved someone telling “that Qatari piece of shit” that he can “see if all the ships and the aircraft we put around him spells out Go Fuck Yourself,” and that’s why it turned out we sent a fleet to blockade a beach resort in a random atoll, because somebody was not going to get 40 percent on this deal, whatever it was.

But it’s not that. It’s never going to be that. That’s the heart talking. That’s important shit that a clutching need for teleology managed to distract you with. There is no higher order to the president, and there hasn’t been for a long time, because sometimes a boat that big just keeps going. Someone who was born with so much and within reach of so much more always aspired to and managed to achieve less, and the great thing is that inertia will take care of the rest of that plunge even if the brain expired behind the wheel. You can have a few billion and be tackier than a commemorative plate next to a McMansion kitchen, the human version of a tableware travesty of boosted Christian and secular iconography daubed with pre-nostalgia to make it seem like an instant echo of itself, and you can do that forever.

There is only one prayer for the president, and it is this: You know, many people said we couldn’t do it, but we’re doing it, we’re seizing We’re taking their assets in the United States, and we’re making them American, because our trade deficit with Canada has been out of control for so long, for so long, we’re talking hundreds of billions, some people say 400 billion, 500 billion, some are even saying 600 billion, and so many of them, so many of the presidents that came before—and some of them were very smart people, some not so much, but they don’t know how to negotiate—they said they wanted to do something about it, but they couldn’t, not for many years, and we got it done in just a few months. And we’re bringing them back, folks, we’re bringing back big tits. A lot of these girls—we used to call them surfboards, even though I can tell you some of those models you wouldn’t believe. But we’re getting rid of that, we’re getting rid of that. I’ve already nominated Christy Canyon as Secretary of Big Naturals, and we’re doing a lot more, I promise you. We’re bringing back the tans and the tanlines—

and then Mick Mulvaney shakes his shoulder and gently Himmlers a few words into his ear, and Trump momentarily shakes off his eyes’ distant glaze to turn to Mulvaney and tell him what this moment of reflection has brought him. That it’s such a shame what happened to Burt and Loni, because they were wonderful together, just terrific. I mean, she was a knockout, just a classic, blonde, tremendous—but what you have to remember about Burt, and I don’t mean the Playgirl thing, which I would have told him not to do, but it worked out for him, I guess, but he asked Trump for advice once, and he came to me, and he said—

and Mulvaney shakes him again, gently, but turning him toward the oncoming phalanx of cameras, where he will explain that the overwhelmingly conservative goon squads permanently spidering out from the power of the executive didn’t monitor and detain and intimidate American journalists, because American journalists are intimidating him, and it’s very unfair, really the most unfair. In six months, the vision reappears in oil, and the president stands on a bench outside the White House like he’s on a boat’s gunwale. He’s surrounded by journalists that all work for a company called “Slapnuts.” Abraham Lincoln is swinging a guitar like Jeff Jarrett. George Washington wields a naval cutlass. Donald Trump points to the sky. His ass looks taut and incredible.

Images via Jon McNaughton.