Mini Object Lesson: The Season of Small Toys

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Recently at the drug store, I passed the Easter pop-up section, with all its trinkets and candies sold to fill plastic, pastel eggs. Further down the aisle were the small toys, conveniently Easter basket friendly as well: Pretty Ponies, Hot Wheels, and a host of unbranded princesses, robots, and animals.

All these small toys reminded me of some from my own childhood: the bagged Lego sets that came in McDonald’s Happy Meals in 1989. This was a series of eight speedy vehicles, a dozen or so pieces each, simple but elegant in their aerodynamics. Two airplanes, two cars, two helicopters, and two—hovercrafts? The hovercrafts add a Miami Vice lifestyle vibe to the set—amphibious maneuvers discordant with prop planes, copters, and the track-bound scope of the race cars.

In addition to its rear-mounted turboprop, one of the hovercrafts sports yellow jet engines. While building Legos with my son, I often stumble upon one of them, and I momentarily forget what set it came with. A yellow jet engine? Who does that?

The 1980s, that’s who. Just look at the official names of these small toys: Gyro Bird, Turbo Force, Swamp Stinger, Lightning Striker, Land Laser, Sea Eagle, Windwhirler, Sea Skimmer. What do these names say? Maximum speed, weaponized mobility, brassy alliteration—is it any surprise? The age of excess was ramping up, replete with all the hyperbolic promises of eternal growth in newly-unregulated industry.

And now we are feeling the burn. Our most popular would-be politician (hated or revered) is essentially a hypostatized version of a Happy Meal Lego set. Donald Trump first floated the idea of a presidential run in 1988, as those little toy vehicles were making their way around the country. Pay attention to the boisterous rhetoric and fast moves whirling around the current election cycle, and you’ll see the patterns: grandiose claims, incendiary language, and results guaranteed to be as easy as a 15-piece kit. For all the complex issues and real human lives at stake, the whole thing also resembles a wild hovercraft ride in miniature, destined to ephemera. In this year’s season of small toys, the toys aren’t so small any more, at all.

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