PCBA, born among a group of Seattle friends and which has been anonymous until now, produces comic booklets satirizing President Trump. The pocket-size publications are parodies of the fire-and-brimstone evangelical Christian Chick tracts.
Little Dickie Glitz was born rich. His parents gave him lots of stuff, but he was never satisfied and always hollered for more. His parents were lax in the manners department, so Dickie earned a reputation as the loud, spoiled neighborhood brat. The other kids didn’t like to play with Dickie — every time he started losing a game, he stormed away, yelling: “I quit! This game is rigged!”
These habits continued into adulthood, and Dickie became a rich, arrogant loudmouth who made a deal with a devilish-looking guy (who bore a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin) and somehow got elected President of the United States.
That’s the basic narrative arc of “I’m Rich!,” a roughly 3-by-5-inch comic-book tract printed on cheap, newspaper-grade paper and lightly sprinkled with gallows-humor wit and relevant Bible verses: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24), “Everyone who is arrogant is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5), “Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness” (Luke 12:15).
“I’m Rich!” and its companion tract (“Good Morning Amerika”) were created and published by an enigmatic group called Patriotic Christians for a Better America (PCBA), who have been anonymous — until now. (Its national headquarters is in a cozy house in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)
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Despite their mysterious origins, PCBA tracts have made their way around the country.
Russell Clark, a professional tree climber and trimmer for older, wealthy clients in Florida (most, he says, are Republicans) leaves copies at bus stops, inside newspaper boxes and on bathroom counters in restaurants and bars. Susan Squier, a professor emerita at Penn State University, has been driving around red counties in Pennsylvania, surreptitiously scattering them at gas stations and Home Depot stores. Liz Paz, a retired schoolteacher and principal who is originally from Colombia, but now lives in Arizona, has handed out tracts at community meetings.
“I love the concept,” said Susan Welch, a retired social worker in Minnesota, who’s been leaving them at grocery stores and forwarding them to people in other states. “I feel like our country is in a crisis, but it doesn’t strike me that protests are that effective and I’ve done the ranting and raving to my senators.”
Squier, the Pennsylvania professor, has also cycled through the political-action go-tos: phone banks, donating to campaigns, attending climate-change and women’s marches. “But I like the more guerrilla stuff,” she said. “Which is why I like this so much.”
Squier is one of the few national distributors who has actually met a PCBA member. (They talked at a conference on comics and health care.) The rest just heard about the project, sent their mailing addresses to some stranger in Seattle and waited for their boxes. So far, the PCBA says it’s sent tens of thousands of tracts around the U.S. They’d like to send more.
In January 2017, right around the time of President Trump’s inauguration, a group of Seattle friends (an artist, a doctor and a few others — who grew up in a variety of faith backgrounds) got together for a dinner party. Everyone was miserable.
“It was just people sitting around feeling broken,” said Barry, one of the friends, who asked to be identified by his first name. The reality of Trump’s new presidency and concern about worst-case scenarios (which could change the lives of their friends, patients, of immigrants, Muslims and whomever else was vulnerable to Trump supporters’ most extreme and least charitable impulses) hung over the table like a ghoul. “It was just shock and worry,” Barry said, “asking ourselves: ‘What should we do?'”
“I don’t even like thinking about how I felt then,” said Kathryn Rathke, the artist. “It really was kind of hysterical, the panic.” Among them, everybody in the group felt like they’d exhausted their options to resist the rise of President Trump: volunteering, donating, protesting, networking.
Then inspiration struck: Chick tracts. Why not write and draw a parody of Chick-tract-style cartoons, but with a twist? Instead of the scare-’em-straight evangelical Christianity of the originals, they could make wry but serious cartoons about a different kind of wayward soul, a sorta-kinda Trump-ish character, then circulate them around the country. It would be satire in the classic mold of Jonathan Swift or Stephen Colbert — humorous, with a strong undercurrent of real-life urgency.
For those unfamiliar with Chick tracts, a quick primer: In the 1960s, an evangelical Christian named Jack Chick started making and circulating pocket-size cartoons for distribution wherever potential sinners lingered: libraries, bus stops, train stations, college campuses. The tracts (which often featured graphic, gruesome tortures in hell and on Earth) took aim at anyone who didn’t fit Chick’s mid-20th-century, fundamentalist Christian mold: gay people, marijuana smokers, teens who played Dungeons & Dragons, kids who went trick-or-treating on Halloween, Muslims, Mormons. (One tract, titled “The Death Cookie,” claims the Catholic sacrament of communion was invented by Satan.)
According to its 2019 sales catalog, Chick Publications has sold more than 900 million tracts since its start in 1961. The No. 1 best-seller, “This Was Your Life” (in which an angel takes a man’s soul to watch a movie version of his life, then tosses him into a lake of fire), has been translated into 119 languages, including Burmese, Low German, and various versions of Sotho and Hmong.
“They’re just sad little tracts,” Barry said. “Insanely negative, no nuance, screaming all the time, a lot of hating others.” Which, he said, made them a fitting inspiration. “The Trump administration feels like a Chick tract. It’s all so loud. When I think back to somebody I disagreed with in the past, President George H.W. Bush, at least there was some nuance. Now it’s all yelling and cartoons.”
“The idea took hold right away,” Rathke said. “Most things the Chick tracts address is so much hyperbole, fire and brimstone — but in this case it seemed to fit: ‘OK guys, we have a real fire-and-brimstone situation. This is serious.'”
PCBA was born.
Targeting swing states
Rathke and Barry got to work on “I’m Rich!” while the others found contacts around the country, emailing people affiliated with Indivisible, the national network of left-leaning volunteers who sprung up in the wake of the 2016 election.
Their target audience: people in swing states who voted for Obama in 2012, then Trump in 2016. According to data analysis from American National Election Studies, roughly 13 percent of Obama 2012 voters went for Trump; the political firm Global Strategy Group estimates those voters, concentrated in swing states, were 70 percent of the reason Hillary Clinton lost Obama’s vote total.
When someone responded, PCBA sent boxes of tracts with a letter explaining the mission and places to drop them: laundromats, bowling alleys, public restrooms, anywhere undecided voters might be idling.
Rathke and Barry also took tracts when they traveled, leaving them at the usual spots, plus airport boarding gates for flights bound toward swing states. “Distributing them is a gas,” Rathke said. “The trick is to not look suspicious, like ‘of course I belong here,’ but it takes a certain amount of gumption.”
Barry gets a particular kick out of dropping them at gun shops: “When you’re in Trump country and putting these out, it feels a little punk rock … just stacks of these things interspersed with the ammo.”
PCBA started anonymously (Rathke, who specializes in portraits with highly expressive lines and flourishes, even dulled down her drawing style to make it more generic) for two reasons. First, the group wanted to emulate the mystery of Chick tracts in the pre-internet era, when the messages seemed to have been dropped from heaven. But fear was a factor, too. Some members of PCBA work with vulnerable populations; others have kids. “We were worried about being attacked and worried about being harassed,” said the doctor who, like some other members of the group, still declines to use his name. “We don’t want any trouble.”
So why go public now? “If that spoils the surprise for some people to some small degree, that’s fine,” Rathke said. “There’s more to be said for throwing out a bigger net.” And, Barry added, knowing about PCBA might inspire others.
Because PCBA didn’t have an email address, the group doesn’t have a good idea of what happened to all those 3-by-5-inch cartoons. (It finally got one: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“It’s still weird that heavy boxes of those things went into the ether,” Rathke said. “I hope they’ve gotten to some honest-to-God Christians who were OK with this guy [Trump], but might be grappling with that in some way. I honestly don’t know how they could reconcile it. Hopefully, these tracts could be something to help them think through that conundrum — or maybe make them feel a little squirmy.”
Down in Florida, Clark says he’s watched tract readers look delighted, or disgusted, or thoughtful.
“Personally, I think they’re a riot,” he said. “It’s sad. But at the same time it’s amusing.”
In the final image of “I’m Rich!,” Dickie Glitz stands on the White House roof, waving a bullwhip, yelling: “Mine! ALL MINE! Ha ha! I AM THE BEST!” while the Putin-ish devil grins in a corner.
The last page is blank except for the words: “… Jesus wept.”
This story has been updated with the correct year of President Trump’s inauguration.
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