The oddest thing to emerge in the whole Thomas-Crow affair—the sugar daddy relationship between Texas billionaire Harlan Crow and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—has to be that painting. You know the one:
Who are those guys, and why is the painting so weirdly realistic and yet idealized at the same time? Let’s start with the easy part: the identification, starting bottom left.
That “some law clerk who doesn’t matter” is indeed a former clerk of Thomas, and he actually matters. He’s Peter B. “Bo” Rutledge, now serving as Dean and Herman E. Talmadge Chair of Law at the University of Georgia School of Law. He doesn’t just hang around with his former boss at the venue for this painting: Camp Topridge, the 105-acre compound in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, owned by Crow. He stays in touch regularly via briefs, amicus briefs, and petitions filed at the Supreme Court. Dozens of them over the years. Of course he’s a “contributor” to the conservative Federalist Society, meaning he has “spoken or otherwise participated in Federalist Society events, publications, or multimedia presentations.” He is, in short, a cog in the conservative legal effort to undermine everything we care about.
Speaking of the Federalist Society, that’s who the next guy is—the actual founder (and former director) of the Federalist Society. Leonard Leo isn’t just the guy who funneled lots of money to SCOTUS spouse Ginni Thomas through Kellyanne Conway, and who “stacked the GOP court.” He is the architect of the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court and the guy responsible for reshaping select federal district and appeals courts since the George W. Bush administration. Basically, Republican presidents don’t nominate judges unless the Federalist Society approves them. Every terrible Supreme Court decision in the last quarter century can be laid at his feet.
Leo’s reach also extends deep into the U.S. Senate, as he needs those people to close the deal on his judges. That includes famed “moderate” Susan Collins, who got a nice financial boost from him during her last reelection campaign, perhaps as a “thank you” for helping make Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh a reality. After a humongous dark money deal Leo secured last year (to the tune of $1.6 billion), Leo can buy and sell the entire Republican Party. Having a handful of pet Supreme Court justices at his disposal caps the deal. He doesn’t even hide it.
That next guy, the one sitting beneath that disturbing sculpture, is Mark Paoletta. He is indeed Ginni Thomas’ lawyer, though why he’d be hanging out in this group is a mystery since—as Ginni has vociferously argued—she has absolutely nothing to do with her husband’s work. They never even talk about it at home! That’s “an ironclad rule in our house,” she told the Jan. 6 committee, where she was represented by Paoletta. But it’s all okay because he’s an official “friend of Justice Thomas” according to this tweet he made explaining how it’s okay for a billionaire to pay the private school tuition for his Supreme Court Justice friend’s adopted kid. Enough about him.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is next up, holding court with his acolytes and pontificating with a cigar. Why he has a cigar prop we do not know. Maybe it makes him more of a regular guy? You know, the kind of guy who totally feels comfortable hanging out with the RV and Walmart crowd.
Those yachting trips all over the world he accepted as a gift from Crow? Pshaw. "I don't have any problem with going to Europe, but I prefer the United States, and I prefer seeing the regular parts of the United States," Thomas said in a 2020 documentary, "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words."
"I prefer the RV parks. I prefer the Walmart parking lots to the beaches and things like that. There's something normal to me about it," Thomas continued, adding, "I come from regular stock, and I prefer that — I prefer being around that."
Wow, Crow could have saved himself a whole lot of money if he’d just given Clarence and Ginni an RV and some gas money. Thomas already had a guy in Omaha to hook him up with tires, so it would have been a great deal. (Really. Tires. Clarence Thomas took tires from a guy in Omaha. Who is he?)
We don’t have a full accounting of all the money Crow has sunk into vacations, gifts, real estate deals, tuition assistance, and god knows what else for Thomas, but this timeline of the very long string of Thomas’ ethics problems is a good place to start. And at the heart of it is the guy who commissioned this painting, Thomas’ friend and patron, Harlan Crow. He’s a billionaire real estate magnate who seems to own most of Thomas’ hometown (seriously), and he’s a Republican megadonor and key funder of Tea Party (remember them?) astroturf—he gave Ginni $500,000 to create one of those groups, Liberty Central.
Collecting Supreme Court justices and their spouses isn’t his only hobby. He also collects historical memorabilia, particularly Hitler and Nazi artifacts and memorabilia. Lots of it, from two paintings by Hitler and a signed copy of “Mein Kampf” to extremely banal things like linen napkins with embroidered swastikas. There’s something seriously disturbed in a person who wants to replicate the dinner services of the Third Reich. He also has a garden full of statues of despots—Lenin, Stalin, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, among others. That’s completely normal, right?
The photo-realtistic painting itself is odd enough that it’s gotten attention on its own. It’s the work of Sharif Tarabay, a Montreal illustrator. Slate was so intrigued by it they asked art historian Heather Diack, associate professor of contemporary art and the history of photography at the University of Miami, what she sees in it. The whole interview is interesting, but this part kind of leaps out:
Some of us here were discussing the painting, and it reminded us of Jon McNaughton’s works. He’s painted countless portraits of Trump, including a version of Mount Rushmore that includes Trump’s face. What do you make of his paintings?
It’s hard not to see it as a caricature, even though I realize that this artist is actually quite sincere about his message. It reminded me a lot of socialist realist propaganda paintings under Josef Stalin. It’s painted in a way that is hyperrealist, but also idealist, insofar as the realism they’re trying to portray is really about their ideology. So McNaughton’s ideology, I think, is very clear, him being quite a right-wing conservative. It’s really glaring. If you look back at paintings that were done under Stalin’s regime, they really imitate that style. [...]
I think there’s a conservative penchant towards realist painting. There’s been an aversion to abstract art, and they want to make artwork that they believe is more easily readable. Yet, even though it’s painted in a realist style, that’s not to say the scene pictures or the values conveyed by it are real or the truth. Even though I think that is partly what the artists want to be there.
You know who else had a strong aversion to abstract art, right?