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MAGA's Conummist Propaganda: A Photo Essay
"Dear Leader" art has a way of converging on the same themes and style whether in the Soviet Union, China—or the United States of America
By Eve Fairbanks
Long before Trump had his Non-Fungible Token (NFT) digital trading card collection, he had acquired a favorite painter, Jon McNaughton. A few weeks ago, McNaughton released a video in honor of Trump’s new bid for a second term at the helm of the United States government. It overlays McNaughton’s famous images—Trump, head bowed, being blessed by Frederick Douglass; a muscled citizen gripping an American flag and a semiautomatic rifle–with clips from the ex-president’s dour announcement speech: “We will be resisted by … the Marxist radicals.”
What’s strange about the montage is how unmistakably Communist the MAGA court artist is in his style. In his techniques and themes, McNaughton’s paintings are literally socialist-realist propaganda posters. His image of Trump clutching an American flag imitates a classic North Korean painting. His depictions of lone citizens atop horses, hoisting flags, mimic late Soviet propaganda posters. His depictions of fat-cat elites and languishing common men are near-direct copies of Maoist and Bolshevik propaganda depictions of the "enemies of the state.”
Maybe Bolshevik art is the only art MAGA’s top painter has ever seen for inspiration. But I don’t think it’s just a comic coincidence. One of Trump’s most popular new NFTs is eeriely—though probably inadvertently— reminiscent of the iconic Soviet poster “The Victory of Communism Is Inevitable.” Of all artistic movements, Trumpist art was likeliest to channel socialist realism because Trumpism as a philosophy has a great deal in common with socialist realism, no matter how much it condemns “radical Marxism” for rally boo-lines. Communism derives its authority from by casting the existing establishment as the enemy, even after it gains power. My father, Charles Fairbanks, former director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (and a contributor to The UnPopulist), spent a lifetime studying Communism. He recently noted to me that Mao Zedong actively encouraged a people’s rebellion against his own government. “That is also what Trump does. It may be startling to realize this parallel because Trump calls himself a conservative. But Trump from the very start has insisted that the American government he wants to run will always be an enemy,” my dad wrote.
Soviet Communism undermined itself after it seized power because it had to constantly refresh itself by: one, making incoherent claims of its own victimhood and, two, sowing divisions among genuine communities by identifying new enemies—the rural bourgeoisie, the ‘Old Bolsheviks,’ the Jews. Likewise, Trump’s fanboy, McNaughton, laments that his idol’s comeback won’t be “easy,” because literally everyone is Trump’s enemy: “He’s been trashed by the media, hunted by the Deep State … and [now] blocked by both Republicans and Democrats.” It may be relieving to think the Republican Party is finally turning its back on Trump.
But the right is not turning its back on the version of MAGA conservatism his favorite painter made famous. Politico reported McNaughton’s “never been busier.” McNaughton’s original works now sell for an eye-popping $300,000; Dinesh D’Souza has become his confidante; Sean Hannity owns up to 10 of his pieces.
But this version of “conservatism,” at its heart, is a classically Communist vision in which: elites have an unbreakable hold on power; “real” people are the eternal victims; the opposition is the enemy; government and, particularly, government-run elections, cannot be trusted; an “authentic” dictator can set things straight. All these themes find expression in McNaughton’s work—and they’ll be far harder to disentangle from contemporary American conservatism than the temporary incarnation they found in Donald Trump.
Deification of the flag—which can symbolize both a leader and an ideology and sometimes both—reaches religious levels under both MAGA and Communist strongman propaganda. In Jon McNaughton's "Respect for the Flag," Trump, ironically a man who prides himself on holding nothing sacred, clutches the flag reverentially in a way that recalls North Korean propaganda posters.
Socialist realism so often features a lone, idealized figure of strength and purity—never a pair or a group who might argue—defending the faith against unseen forces of evil. Sometimes it's a common man, sometimes the great leader. McNaughton has dozens of these icons. The "purpose" of this painting, "Take a Stand," he writes, "is to show the strength and honor of the American woman ... a SIG 556 [is] her weapon of choice."
The Common Man's absolute fidelity to—and worship of—a text was a classic socialist-realist trope. McNaughton draws on it often, portraying Americans clutching, worshiping, or kowtowing before the Constitution in a style that would have felt laughably alien to Madison or Lincoln, who saw it as a practical guide, not a revealed truth.
In Bolshevik art, group scenes are scenes of chaos—the fields burning, the peasants bereft and helpless facing a small, smug, and careless elite. So, too, with McNaughton's portraits of America, which feature Democratic leaders dudded like czars in fancy clothes, utterly disinterested in the strikingly Bolshevik scenes of death, fiery destruction, starvation, and suffering just beneath their podiums.
If they aren't animals, in Communist propaganda political enemies are literal devils—but also portrayed as faintly funny, objects of contempt and not quite true fear. This McNaughton image of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Epstein, Barack Obama, and New York’s Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler—chosen, presumably, because he happened to once be a very heavy man—has it all. Pedestrians passing it on a wall in 1970s Beijing wouldn't have looked twice.
This McNaughton portrait of Democrats, who are implicitly compared to dogs by recalling the famous Dogs Playing Poker painting, is reminiscent of the typical way Jews, the clergy, and other "enemies" were portrayed in Soviet propaganda posters—painted in high contrast sitting around the iconic "backroom table" and often caricatured as animals.
Twentieth-century Chinese Communist propaganda artists, in particular, were tasked with presenting the Communist elite as ordinary men benevolently sharing their folk wisdom with The People. Leaders were meant to be both one with the people and above them—their benefactors and saviors. In one famous Mao Zedong image, he stands at the edge of a boat in a bathrobe, prepared to teach Chinese children how to swim. In this portrait he bestows some wisdom about rice. Wisely, McNaughton always plays down Trump's outrageous copper bouffant, rendering it a classic Everyman hairdo in the socialist-realist style. He won't divest Trump of his suit, but here he depicts Trump as ready to teach the Common Man about fishing.
Fairbanks, author of The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning, writes about change: in cities, countries, landscapes, morals, values, and our ideas of ourselves. A former political writer for The New Republic, her essays and reportage have been published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Guardian, among other outlets. Born in Washington, DC, and raised in Virginia, she’s lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for thirteen years.
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