Portraits Of A Fascist As An Old Man
The twisted masculinity of pro-Trump art
When Italo Calvino wrote about his memories of growing up in Fascist Italy, surrounded by images of Mussolini, he wrote, also, about his uncle. “I recall my uncle aping Mussolini’s gestures, his fists firmly on his hips,” Calvino remembers in the essay ‘Il Duce’s Portraits.’ “The images of Mussolini came to me filtered through the sarcastic discourse of adults… but the reservations were confined to private conversations, and never put a dent in the façade of unanimity of which the regime made a great show.”
Under the reign of America’s own Il Duce — our sour braggart, our Il Douchebag — it is permitted to ape the dictator’s mannerisms in public. There are so many of them, and they are so peculiar, that imitating Trump’s speech and crouched, pout-lipped stance has become something of a cottage industry. It is the full-time employment of the comedian Anthony Atamanuik, who employed his consummate skill at aping the president for a full season of The President Show on Comedy Central. Alec Baldwin’s more exaggerated and less naturalistic impression, heavy on the drawn-out lips and less committed to capturing the president’s ragged threads of speech, sporadically lights up our screens on Saturday nights. Late-night shows specialize in clip montages of his odder moments; Halloween costumes of the president, a simple combination of a neon-blonde bouffant wig and skin paint of an orange hue, are as easy to find as they are to execute.
We notice that his ties are too long and too red, and sometimes adorned with what appears to be Scotch tape; we notice the discrepancies in spray-tan shades across his vain and weathered face, the ill-fitting suits that sag around the rambling enormity of his body. We mock his tendencies to overuse golf carts, his seeming fear of stairs, his love of fast food in quantity. In the public realm, there is a vast body of scrutiny of the president, and its conclusions are damning. He is too fussy, too filled with complaints; the giddy violence of his rally speeches is contrasted with his early-morning Tweeted peevishness and his evident physical sluggishness.
There is little in his person to suggest the clean-cut, eminently consumable figure of the all-American masculine with which we have been familiar throughout our lives. On movie screens, our taut and nimble superheroes flip, diamond-abbed, in the tightest whispers of Spandex; on the television, our president’s cummerbund cannot hold, even in an audience with the Queen of England.
But there is another America that sees a different man than the one skewered on an endless conveyer belt of lazy late-night sketches. It is the crowd that lines up and bays for blood at his rallies, the crowd that donated some $20 million from their own pockets to help their idol build his wall. There is a segment of the American population for whom the president represents both unbridled possibility and unbridled vigor. The president gestures at it with his Twitter avatar, a ten-year-old image burnished and filtered to better reflect his own vanity. His face is set in a fierce, drawn-browed scowl, and his cheeks are smooth. But the best chroniclers of how the president is seen by those who adore him are not photographers, and still less the roving, cruel, klieg-lighted lenses of cameramen. Those who seek to create encomiums to the Dear Leader are forced to do so in oil and ink, and the best of them have forged an entirely new man, one who radiates strength from a taut, well-muscled core.
The most famous portraitist of Trump, dubbed in the media the “unofficial artist” of the regime, is the painter Jon McNaughton, a fifty-two-year-old artist who resides in Provo, Utah. Since 2008, McNaughton has been creating a kind of naturalistic, self-taught varietal of American fascist art. In the informational PDF he distributes to visitors to his website, which includes a chapter entitled “Liberalism is a Disease,” McNaughton informs his audience that his earnest intention is to restore “the heart and soul of America.” A considerable portion of the pamphlet is devoted to defending himself, somewhat half-heartedly, against charges of racism, which he blames on political correctness.
But beginning his political painting in the political wilderness of the Obama era, McNaughton engaged in a kind of painterly warfare that juxtaposed Norman Rockwell-esque American archetypes with the cruel and sinister reign of a black president. In one painting from 2009, Jesus Christ, adorned in a flowing gold robe, holds up the United States Constitution. An elaborate key accompanies the painting, which points out figures who are arrayed against this sacred union of God and country. These include “Mr. Entertainment,” “Corrupt Politician,” “News Media” and “Satan.” McNaughton’s Obama-era work includes a great number of these symbolic tableaux and Satan figures in everyone. In most, a virile but dejected young white man represents the repressed hopes of his political persuasion.
But in the Trump era, a new McNaughton emerges, one willing to loosen the shackles of heavy symbolism in favor of a portrait of the fascist masculine that breaks, as it must, quite significantly from the physical reality of its subject. We are treated to such images as “MAGA Ride,” in which a virile, leather-jacketed Trump squires Melania around D.C. on the back of a motorcycle. There is also “All-American Trump,” in which the scowling president, in full football uniform, hauls the pigskin through a crowd of fallen foes.
McNaughton’s newest painting, a pastiche of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and a definitive break from reality, features a solemn Trump riding a bucking, horned bull through a sunset landscape, bedecked in a star-spangled cowboy outfit with a metal belt buckle that reads “USA.” Satan is nowhere to be found, nor is the president’s stoutness, or his characteristic pout. He is refigured as the embodiment of masculinity, all muscle, fringed pants, and sublime control over a sinewy beast.
Having found a hero who lacks in all the physical qualities and life experiences that have traditionally marked American masculinity, McNaughton projects them onto Trump, creating, from no evidence at all, a spectacle of manliness
In his definitive work “Aesthetic Modernism and Masculinity in Fascist Italy,” the scholar John Champagne defined the images of near-parodic virility that emerged from the reign of Mussolini as a new type of masculine figure. Stripped of the commodification of capitalism, and the reasoned, civilized representations of Classical art, the fascist man “performed his gender in such a way as to render masculinity a spectacle that provided visible evidence of his strength of body and will.”
This was most evident in the images of Benito Mussolini as Il Duce, Italy’s Fascist dictator — pictured, throughout the thirties, on horseback, in severe profile, with his prominent forehead obscured beneath a general’s helmet topped with a font of plume. His great jaw jutted; his arms grasped the reins of his white steed, and, implicitly, of the Italian empire. McNaughton unwittingly recalls this image in his “2020 Ride” painting of Trump astride the bull. Having found a hero who lacks in all the physical qualities and life experiences that have traditionally marked American masculinity, McNaughton projects them onto Trump, creating, from no evidence at all, a spectacle of manliness and a triumph of will.
McNaughton is not the only artist to impute physical masculinity, ludicrously exaggerated, onto Trump, although he is arguably the most famous of the genre. The cartoonist Ben Garrison depicts him routinely with a chest that looks ready to be doused in massage oil, and countless meme-smiths Photoshop Trump’s head onto bodies more suited for the fascist project. Last week, Trump reproduced the effect himself, Tweeting out an image of his own face on the hyper-buff body of Rocky Balboa.
Calvino, in his essay on Il Duce’s portraits, writes that the greatest key to Mussolini’s solemn, all-pervading image was “the prohibition of any criticism or sarcasm.” From this dearth, from the silencing of public criticism, the image of Mussolini as the embodiment of popular will — his “energy, arrogance, bellicosity… that contrasted with everything that until then had formed the image of a statesman” — was born, and reigned until his lifeless body was hung by a mob upside down in the Piazza Loreto in Milan.
McNaughton’s art is similarly stripped of any intentional comedy, any sarcasm or critique of the figure of Trump. When Satan appears, he is duly logged by the artist in the painting’s accompanying key, but Trump requires no decoding. In this sealed chamber, in which the harshness of the camera is replaced with the gentle adulation of the brush, the tinny laughter of the late-night reels fades in the distance. The imitations of the president’s rambling and discordant speech recede, as do the discordant notes themselves. Here, all is harmony, the bouffant set like glass without a stray hair. Arrogance and bellicosity are refigured as strength; an old man’s limp body is refigured as a strong and potent one; the eyes are asked to discard their own vision, in favor of a landscape lush in hue, and a man flush with noble virility. The President is always the president, the eternal figure cresting the eternal hill.