Jon McNaughton keeps a dizzying pace. During one particularly prolific burst in early 2020, he released paintings every few weeks, each one more astonishing than the next. The first one, of Donald Trump wearing fringed cowboy chaps atop a bucking bronco, was simply titled “2020 Ride.” Then it was Trump addressing a gaggle of clown-faced reporters. Then, when Trump’s impeachment trial launched, a group of congressional Democrats (and Mitt Romney) with pitchforks and torches. Then, when the pandemic hit, Trump dramatically ripping off his mask. Then, when Black Lives Matter protests rocked the country, a remake of Goya’s “The Third of May 1808,” except the French troops were replaced by flag-burning leftists, and the Spanish insurgents donned MAGA hats.

But now, six months before Election Day, it’s been months since McNaughton’s last release. Thus is life for an artist best known for his portrayals of an out-of-office politician: The cadence slowed significantly after Joe Biden won and McNaughton’s subject-of-choice, Trump, briefly left the limelight. (McNaughton found some ways to paint this administration, like “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” of an unclothed Biden in the Briefing Room.)

The frequency ticked up again when Trump announced his 2024 candidacy and marched his way to the top of the Republican pack. (See “Trump Shrugged.”) Then disaster struck when Trump became the first ex-U.S. president to face a criminal trial. McNaughton, at his home in northern Utah, was left in a conundrum. What is Trump’s court painter to do when Trump is served a gag order and left in a courtroom?

Is Jon McNaughton trolling the left — or the right?

There are enough paintings for sale on McNaughton’s site to keep the artist afloat, at least financially. A certain segment of the conservative electorate eat up his work, so much so that McNaughton completely abandoned his landscape and religious art years ago — the previous money-makers — in favor of purely political work. Some see his work as parody, as a sort of alt-right take on Banksy; others as pro-Trump realism. But his themes are too dystopian, yet too unapologetically flattering to Trump, to qualify as either. Instead, he’s something of a 21st-century court painter — a valet de chamber in Trump’s wing, tasked with painting Trump out to be superhumanly patriotic or masculine or however you’d describe someone who crushes a serpent with a flag-wrapped pickup.

Jon McNaughton paints at his home studio in Utah County on Thursday, May 23, 2024. | Isaac Hale, Deseret News

So, when Trump put campaigning on pause and debuted at a Manhattan courtroom last month, McNaughton went to work. McNaughton says he’s uninterested in the trial itself — “I don’t really care about all the details of Stormy Daniels and, you know, that kind of stuff,” he said. If Trump goes to prison, he’ll paint it. But for now, he’s focused on a wider scope. He’s working in lockstep with Trump to portray the trial as just more evidence that Trump and his followers are the heroes in a massive battle between good and evil.

The culmination is McNaughton’s current work, which he started weeks ago and won’t finish for two more months. It’s a huge project, by his measure — with more characters, more plot lines, and more symbolism than any painting he’s done in some time. “I’m trying to capture the moment,” he told me on a recent afternoon, sitting in his studio. “I want people to see this years from now and say, ‘That’s what 2024 looked like.’”

Behind him, resting on a wooden easel, was the unfinished work. Large chunks of beige canvas are still unpainted, but McNaughton has completed enough to chart where it is going. Near the center is the protagonist, Trump, hog-tied with thick rope. Surrounding him, his prosecutors — Fani Willis, Jack Smith, Juan Merchan — wear menacing grins. Trump’s face looks stoic and angered.

But Trump is only a small portion of the painting. Spreading the canvas, another two dozen fingers tell the stories of the year through the lens of a chaotic conservatism. Volodymyr Zelenskyy sits, open-legged, behind a chest of American money. Pro-Palestine protesters ravage a campus. Barack Obama leans back in a recliner, cell phone in hand, presumably “calling the shots.” Biden’s dog, Commander, draws blood from a Secret Serviceman’s leg. Brown-skinned men — “illegals,” McNaughton told me — lurk in the foreground. Ketanji Brown Jackson reads a newspaper labeled, “What Is A Woman?” And on and on. Name an obsession of the right-wing mediasphere over the past six months, and McNaughton’s painting likely has an allusion to it.

It’s a chaotic and grisly painting, but if history is any indication, it’s sure to sell. The more ridiculous a McNaughton painting appears to a liberal audience, the more attention it receives. McNaughton reminded me of the times Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow poked fun at his paintings. “I had a big spike from that,” he said. “So yeah, I don’t care if liberal people hate my work.” (When I interviewed him in 2021, McNaughton mused, “I actually gauge the success now of the painting by how much backlash I get.”)

The more progressives dislike his work, the more conservatives seem to fawn over it. Dinesh D’Souza owns some of his work. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, too. During the Trump administration, a White House official bought two dozen giclees, got Trump to sign them, and handed them out as gifts to cabinet members, McNaughton said. One of his most popular paintings to date was “The Underground Railroad,” a commissioned portrayal of Tim Ballard and others, while civil rights icons like Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass looked on. (All proceeds went to Operation Underground Railroad.)

Jon McNaughton meets with Donald Trump. | Courtesy, Jon McNaughton

Trump himself is a fan, too. McNaughton met the former president several years ago at a fundraiser in Texas and showed him “Crossing the Swamp” — a spoof of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” except Trump takes Washington’s place, and a who’s-who of the MAGA right are rowing the boat. Now that a number of the rowers have turned on Trump — Nikki Haley, John Bolton, James Mattis — McNaughton plans to redo the painting, this time portraying the defectors crawling out of the swamp. “It will be called ‘Swamp Creatures,’” he told me.

The secret to McNaughton’s success? He understands Trump supporters in a way that few do. His paintings gain rapid popularity because they illustrate, in vivid color, the obsessions of the America First movement. McNaughton spends his mornings poring over the latest in conservative media, looking for ideas. He watches the Rubin Report religiously and relies on Drudge Report for news.

“I’ve actually caught myself watching CNN, too, just to see their take on stuff,” he told me. “I’ve tried to understand their point of view — people like Mitt Romney. Why do they hate Trump so much?” McNaughton asked. “I think they see Trump as bombastic and narcissistic. … They just decided that this guy is trash, and he’s not presidential or whatever.” Trump’s supporters, alternatively, are less interested in Trump’s character and more invested in his willingness to be a warrior, he explained. “They see him as the fighter in their corner,” he said. “He’s the pit bull that’s going to defend your family. "

McNaughton has a different view when it comes to Trump’s choice for vice president. It shouldn’t be a fighter, but a submissive follower. McNaughton thought Mike Pence fit the bill and was a great VP — “he’s a very likable guy” — until he and Trump split on January 6. This time around, he thinks Trump will learn from his mistake. “I think (Trump) is going to pick somebody that he sees as 100% loyal and not stealing the limelight — not somebody who’s going to try to upstage him,” McNaughton said. Ben Carson and Sarah Huckabee Sanders are at the top of McNaughton’s list.

The most important thing to McNaughton, though, is that Trump picks someone who will help him win. McNaughton fared better under Trump, he said. He blames Biden for a slip in his sales: “It’s just related to the economy as a whole,” he said. “Buying artwork is not what people on a shoestring budget are going to do.” If Trump gets back into office, he expects the former president to fight for a better economy. “There’s some people that are looking for a president that’s a very kindly sort,” McNaughton said. “You know, very amiable, get along with, plays the game.”

But being bombastic makes for louder paintings, I added. McNaughton chuckled. “I guess so,” he said.

Jon McNaughton paints at his home studio in Utah County on Thursday, May 23, 2024. | Isaac Hale, Deseret News