For four decades, Bill Hocker has been producing sets of traditional metal toy soldiers from his workshop in Berkeley, California. He sells more than 520 sets of handmade and glossy-painted figures primarily representing 18th- and 19th-century conflicts. But a few years ago, Hocker decided to depict a more contemporary clash and create sets from the Donald Trump presidency.
Seeing Trump at two inches tall (with appropriately short fingers) makes an inherently satiric impression, but Hocker had serious intentions. “Like many,” he says, “I was enraged by the rise of a sociopathic demagogue to the most elevated position in the land.” Inspired by artist Kate Kretz, who has deconstructed MAGA hats and refashioned them into Klan hoods and Nazi headgear, Hocker sought to make a statement with his toy soldiers. So far, he has produced seven sets.
Conceptually, the first two were the simplest. Fraternity of Autocrats shows Trump in the company of kindred tyrants Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un. “At first I didn’t feel that Trump was quite in the same league as the others,” says Hocker, “more a wannabe drawing on them for inspiration. But he has exceeded expectations.” In counterpoint, Hocker created The Squad, depicting the congressional quartet of passionate Trump critics.
“I was enraged by the rise of a sociopathic demi-god to the most elevated position in the land.”
But then Hocker got more creative. Less literally representative, the subsequent sets resemble 19th-century political cartoons in the way they combine American symbols and fanciful scenarios. Great America shows a golden Trump atop a pedestal, protected by guards, speaking down to refugees separated from him by a fence. Lock Her Up depicts a cuffed Lady Liberty being led like an undocumented immigrant into a metal cage.
Hocker says he designed these sets to respond to Trump’s exploitation of “the prejudices that got him elected—a nativist fear of immigrants and nonwhites.” It’s not a coincidence that all three of Hocker’s workshop employees are Mien people from Laos who spent years in relocation camps after the end of the Vietnam War before coming to America. They have been with him for decades. “They are the quintessence of what it means to be American,” he says. “Yes, I thought about them while doing the sets.”
Other sets deal with corruption. In The Art of the Deal, Trump is shown auctioning off Uncle Sam and Columbia, venerable personifications of the United States. Hocker created the set after Trump spoke to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and tried to trade American weapons for political dirt. In Above the Law, Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Bill Barr loom above the prostrate figure of Justice. Hocker issued it after Trump’s first impeachment. “The truth that he really could have shot someone on Fifth Avenue—or killed hundreds of thousands with bad pandemic advice—and still be president. That was a sad realization.”
Sculpting figures and turning them into molds takes time—as much as a month to create a set. Hocker says he began sculpting many other Trump figures but abandoned them as the news moved on. “One was The Base, a bunch of gun-toting, flag-wearing followers,” he says. “I really regret not finishing that one, given its subsequent importance in the insurrection.” Another uncompleted set is American Taliban, showing the Supreme Court justices in turbans.
After Trump lost the 2020 election, Hocker decided to stop making Trump sets. “It was over,” he says, “or so I thought.” His latest set, Jan. 6 Insurrection Souvenir, depicts Trump, the buffalo-headed QAnon shaman, and a Proud Boy standing over Democracy, the figure that sits atop the Capitol rotunda. “Trump’s protean skill as a demagogue is not so easily suppressed,” Hocker says, adding, “More sets may come as his revenge-driven Season Two continues.” Trump, he points out, received 74 million votes in 2020. “Hitler, who rose to power with a mere 17 million votes, would have been slavering with envy.”
Although the Trump sets are topping Hocker’s popularity metrics by a factor of three (and a factor of four for Fraternity of Autocrats), he admits that the sets have undoubtedly cost him some customers. “But those who collect my sets were probably already aware of my political inclinations,” he shrugs, “from the Berkeley, California on our boxes, if nothing else.”
Jamie Malanowski is a New York–based writer