This week John McNaughton, artist laureate of the Trumpist right, unveiled his newest work, “Politically Incorrect.” The painting was released on the third day of hearings by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack – hearings that opened by dramatically portrayed the role the Proud Boys in the capitol assault, and closed with the role of Trump and his close advisors in an attempted coup.
The debut of the painting also occurred during a week in which 31 heavily-armed members of the white supremacist Patriot Front were arrested in northern Idaho on their way to a Pride event taking place that day in Coeur d’Alene. Images of handcuffed Patriot Front members in identical white face masks, along with accounts of their cache of weapons and plans to attack the Pride celebration were highly publicized across media, stoking anxiety among many Americans already reeling from the jarring new footage of the capitol assault aired just days before.
McNaughton became a reliable guide to the political imaginary of the U.S. right when his 2009 painting of a Constitution-wielding Jesus, “One Nation Under God,” endeared him to Tea Partiers across the nation. He soon became more famous for his 2010 “The Forgotten Man,” which depicts a modestly-attired, downcast young white man who bears a strong resemblance to the subjects of Norman Rockwell’s optimistic paintings “Free Speech” and “Democracy” even as it invokes a resentful, reactionary trope reaching from William Graham Sumner to Donald Trump by way of Richard Nixon. Indeed, “The Forgotten Man” was purchased by an enthusiastic Sean Hannity the day after Trump’s election in 2016.
McNaughton gained yet more adoration and notoriety for a depictions of such things as Obama torching the Constitution. And across the last six years McNaughton has painted a number of renderings of Trump as a youthful, physically fit national savior. But lest one think of McNaughton as more George Lincoln Rockwell than Norman Rockwell, it is important to note that African American and Latinx subjects populate some of his works of political art. And here we see a fantasized future of the US right – one that is increasingly nonwhite.
“Politically Incorrect” offers us a nationalist vigilante clutching a Bible in one hand and an AR in the other, in an “All lives matter” t-shirt, with a patch on his jacket that reads “Straight Pride,” another with the ubiquitous Gadsen “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, and to top it off, a Confederate belt buckle. And like the recently-charged Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio, he is not white. As if the painting required any extra elaboration, he accompanied the piece with a poem that includes the quatrain:
The American Dream is real.
Though ideologies clash.
He wore a red MAGA hat,
And a Martin Luther King mustache.
This brings us back to Patriot Front and its role in the larger far right. Patriot Front was originally a splinter from American Vanguard, the neo-Nazi group that was highly visible during the Charlottesville, VA Unite the Right rally in August 2017. Organizers of Unite the Right believed it would launch a broad, popular movement for white supremacy in the US.
But the weekend that began with a torchlight march and chants of “Jews will not replace us” and ended with the vehicular manslaughter of antifascist activist Heather Heyer made for a disastrous debut. The vision of politics on display at Charlottesville, rooted more in European-imported racial purity myths than American national identity, was widely condemned.
In the months immediately following the Charlottesville debacle, the white nationalist movement collapsed in on itself. American Vanguard’s James Alex Fields, who killed Heyer, was charged, convicted and given life sentences by both the state of Virginia and the federal government. Some white supremacists groups, like the Traditional Workers Party, collapsed altogether, while others, like Identity Evropa and American Vanguard, reorganized and changed their names.
Former members of American Vanguard self-consciously chose the new name Patriot Front to appeal to a broader audience by emphasizing national identity before white supremacy. However, unlike the Proud Boys or other elements of emergent far-right nationalism, the group has continued to openly argue for the superiority of the white race.
While Patriot Front threatens real harm to its targets, it is ultimately limited in its ability to build a large or influential organization. As an avowed white supremacist group, its insistence on a racially pure United States is at odds with both demographic realities on the ground, and on deeply-held beliefs in racial innocence among white Americans. But more important, the political right has proven adept not just at professing “colorblindness,” but at actually mobilizing symbols of Blackness and Latinx identity to justify its antidemocratic imperatives, and to generate productive friend/enemy distinctions around gender, sexuality, religion, and citizenship.
Thus does Patriot Front currently succeed at symbolic forms of media-grabbing street theater and publicized threats of social chaos far more than actual movement-building or the making of coalitional linkages. And its call for a white ethnostate puts it in direct conflict with the current US state, which, regardless of who is in power demands a Weberian monopoly on violence. We can think of the Reagan administration putting considerable resources into crushing the Order in the 1980s. Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and Oath Keepers, by contrast, openly allied themselves with the Trump administration and Trump’s attempt to hold power after the 2020 election.
As scholars of US frontier mythology and blackface minstrelsy have long demonstrated, the association of symbolic racial appropriation in the service of white racial domination is not new in American political culture. But its distinct use by the far right — a political identity that was once borne aloft to a great extent by its avowed commitments to racial hierarchy — is new. The dream of a racially-mixed nationalism that wields both Bible and gun, exercises heteropatriarchal violence, is deployed to repress mass protest, and acts to crush democracy in the name of the American republic is powerful.
But while this dream is not likely to bring in large numbers of Black, Latinx, or Asian-American recruits, it opens the door to increased multiracialism around the edges. More important in the short-run, it gives sustenance to an authoritarian right that connects billionaires, state political actors, and street vigilantes that seeks to shred what is left of liberal democracy in the name of the republic.
Should it come to pass, the effects of an authoritarian seizure of power in the next few years will of course fall hardest on communities of color from accelerated class domination enforced by the despotism of local police forces. The flash-mob race theatrics of Patriot Front may not be necessary, because a new form of white supremacy will have been achieved with the help of a painted-on mustache of masculine multiracialism.