I have an experience in common with a number of other reporters on the left. It goes something like this: I suddenly notice that my Twitter notifications are blowing up. I didn’t recently publish anything noteworthy—so why the attention? When I check them, I’m in for a string of insults: my appearance, the unworthiness of my work, my intellectual inferiority, whatever the angle may be. Often it goes darker, into homophobia, antisemitism, threats of violence.
I, like a lot of people, am often able to trace this experience back to one person: Andy Ngo. He has branded me an “antifa ideologue,” sometimes tagging my Twitter account while accusing me of some nefariousness he’s sure I’m responsible for. I should say very clearly he is not the one directly threatening me, nor does he explicitly instruct anyone to do so. But this name-and-shame process is the foundation of Ngo’s celebrity: he has created a highly lucrative career off of pairing identification with accusation, using vague allegations of malfeasance that are taken by his followers as a signal to harass and threaten the person named.
Ngo’s new book, Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy, published by Hachette, consists of this process extended to an agonizing length, all hamfistedly contorted into a mythology that Ngo has cultivated out of his own imaginative grievances. You see, two years ago, after an already-prolific career of Islamophobic op-eds and antagonistic interactions with left-wing organizers, Ngo was roughed up and had a milkshake thrown at him at a Portland protest. Bearing the humiliation was clearly too much, so he refocused his entire career on “antifa,” a word that, in this context, has to be put in quotations. Over the past few years, the term has become a mainstream right-wing bogeyman, and Ngo has been a prime cultivator of the trend. The “milkshake incident” in 2019 was videotaped; it led his celebrity on the right to skyrocket (along with a brief stint of liberal sympathy), and delivered him huge sums of money through crowdfunding.
He comes across as meek, decidedly unassuming, with a curious British accent for someone born and raised in Portland, Oregon. (His book also uses British spellings.) To the right, he is the perfect victim of the “unchecked radical left” in modern America. People ate up Ngo’s story because of its utility—the example of a gay man of color being attacked by intolerant leftists—and, during 2020’s protests, he became a favored figure and go-to commentator for right-wing pundits, including Tucker Carlson.
Ngo capitalized on all this for Unmasked, his first book, which hit #1 on Amazon. The book itself is the “culmination of his reporting,” which we also have to put in quotes since, as I’ll discuss, Ngo cannot be said to do anything resembling real reporting on antifa. It may be more accurate to say that the book is the culmination of Ngo’s Twitter account: he stacks bizarre allegations and spurious rumors into a sprawling, incoherent metanarrative.
To defame his targets, Ngo pulls together disconnected pieces of a person’s biography—youthful legal troubles, past associations, anything he can make hay out of. He seeks to paint leftists as emotionally fraught, unstable, and pathological, their ideology simply a vessel for their resentments. For Ngo, politics is driven entirely by victimization, and he has difficulty understanding that complex human beings often organize in an effort to see the world become a little better.
Awkwardly, Ngo denotes people as “males” or “females.” Throughout the book he refers to trans people as “transsexuals,” a term that many consider offensive, and does not necessarily reflect the identities of the people he singles out. This has no utility except to invite scorn from readers and evince his personal bigoted loathing. For the same reason, he uses incorrect pronouns and deadnames several trans people in the book. This is beyond the pale both morally and in a journalistic context, and there is no reason to do it other than to challenge the legitimacy of their gender identity and revel in the attempt to needle them by provoking recollection of their pasts. This is the way that he treats the people whom he associates with antifa—with a deep-seated cruelty.
Much of Ngo’s work seems directly geared towards encouraging harassment, even threats, against the people he denounces. “[Ngo] uses social media to push biased opinions in conjunction with selectively edited videos that play to the bigotry of his audience. His followers get worked up, and this is often followed by a deluge of threats against his subject,” wrote Arun Gupta in Jacobin. Gupta interviewed a number of people who said they experienced harassment after tweets about them from Ngo. In a story published by Portland’s Willamette Week, a number of others discussed the violent threats they were subjected to after Ngo publicized their legal issues. (Ngo also likes publishing the mug shots of people arrested for entirely irrelevant reasons.)
While Ngo’s lies, slanders, and bigotries will get the most attention, the book has a fundamental failure just as glaring: Ngo cannot define antifa. The term antifa generally comprises an approach to left activism that involves employing real-world protest tactics, deplatforming, and doxxing to subvert white nationalist organizing. The rise of the right in the past few years sparked, in response, a diffuse and diverse growth of organizations using these tactics; antifa is neither a singular organization nor merely a general label for all who oppose fascism.
“For years now the U.S. far right has (mis)used the term “antifa” to refer to everything from actual antifascist activists to Nancy Pelosi,” says Spencer Sunshine, who has written extensively about antifascism. “This conspiratorial view is an updating of earlier anti-Communist conspiracies, which similarly held that everyone from Trotskyists to Republican President Dwight Eisenhower were part of the Communist plot.”
The entire structure of Ngo’s book rests on confused, inconsistent, and internally contradictory treatments of the word antifa. He uses it as a catchall for movements that are remotely left-wing—but even that is putting it charitably. He spends a great deal of time talking about organizations, events, and protests that are not associated with “antifa” by any commonly accepted definition. He collapses Black Lives Matter protests (which are even more organizationally diffuse than antifa) into the same movement, often using “BLM-antifa,” wholly inaccurately. These are distinct movements with separate organizers, supporters, and strategies, even if they both oppose racism and have participatory crossover. But he goes even further: anti-eviction campaigns, labor unions, and environmental groups are all bundled into “antifa.” He will name a political organization and then append “an antifa group” as a descriptor, with absolutely no evidence.
Were you aware that the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Lawyers Guild are also antifa? Any organization involved in supporting the movement against police violence, one of the largest in American history, is labeled part of the BLM-antifa axis. The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which raised money for protester bail, is now antifa. Steve Carell, who helped amplify the fund, must now be antifa by proxy. How much of America, in Ngo’s formulation, could be considered antifa?
While Ngo’s claims about antifa’s ubiquity are absurd enough, they’re only the starting point for even more bizarre comparisons. He suggests that there have been several “antifa” mass shootings, including on the list of perpetrators people who have no discernable relationship to antifascism. Yet that, of course, is not the point. Antifa for Ngo comprises everyone from actual leftists to liberals he dislikes. Anyone with an ideology that fits into this conception must be unstable and prone to violence. Antifa is a priori violent; all leftism is antifa and all leftism causes violence.
“Antifa’s goal generally does not include mass casualties — at least not for now,” he writes ominously. He suggests that the Boogaloo Boys, a far-right fringe movement bent on starting another Civil War, actually have a lot in common with antifa and may not be right-wing after all. This point has been refuted by expert analysis. But for Andy, his feelings count as evidence of collaboration: he dislikes both antifa and the Boogaloos, therefore, they must be in cahoots.
The book has almost no actual reporting in it. Ngo interviews only a small handful of people, such as Seattle police union president Mike Solan. The rest is largely derivative of news articles and tweets. His primary proof of antifa malevolence comes from Twitter posts from various groups, mostly anonymous, that purportedly “escalate tensions.” He decries the mutual aid programs that arose in 2020, when many of the same groups involved in Portland’s protests also provided aid around COVID-19 and the devastating forest fires. These efforts are, naturally, trickery by antifa to win supporters and discredit the state. All of this is presented as evidence—but evidence of what, exactly, is unclear; the connections between each of his claims are too loose to follow. Somehow a fire set in Portland has something to do with an anonymous tweet from six months earlier. This is about the extent of evidentiary backing he is able to muster.
Unmasked was advertised as including “secret documents” from antifa, never before seen. The secret document turned out to be an email about a Rose City Antifa reading group. He spends an excruciating twenty pages on this email, bringing to light the revelatory, damning truth that the group is 1) left-wing and 2) assigns homework. Little else is offered. Strange—in the two years of Ngo’s obsession with Rose City Antifa, I expected he might actually be able to drum up something interesting about the organization. Its actual history, ideas, work, etc., are almost entirely absent, despite his fixation on the group and his lawsuit against them. I’ve interviewed members of Rose City Antifa over a dozen times for a series of stories and two books, so I can safely say that I know the organization pretty well. Ngo talks about none of it in depth, and when he tries, he gets basic facts wrong.
At one point, he highlights an email that a Project Veritas informant produced after “infiltrating” antifa. The absurd Project Veritas project, which also took hidden video of some different left-wing groups, had almost no content in itself. They revealed that antifascist groups often do self-defense training, raise money, and educate members—all things done in plain sight. So Ngo instead tries to add a sense of gravitas to this material with a range of inflammatory adjectives. He finds no new evidence, and the old evidence he does find is neither shocking nor illuminating. Ngo is open in the book about the fact that he doesn’t really report from the ground. He says it’s because he’s a target, but this is pretty clearly a convenient excuse to cover his laziness and ineptitude.
Ngo’s understanding of the left is embarrassing at best. He lines up various radical pamphlets distributed by anarchist collectives tabling at events, suggesting these disparate sets of tracts are somehow motivating a terrorist insurgency. This might work as a scare tactic for those completely uninitiated to the world of activism, but it’s a meaningless red herring, as all the literature he references has no connection to any movement and is largely obscure.
He also has a deep well of Islamophobia to draw from, so he goes about trying to connect his dismal view of Islam to antifa. He says that the Torch Network, a loose collection of a few militant antifascist groups, is similar to “global jihadism” with a “phantom cell structure.” When discussing the Rose City Antifa reading group he finds so horrifying, he says it is “akin to Muslim Brotherhood radicalization.” The characterizations of antifa run the gamut in Unmasked because Andy is unable to make any clear denunciation stick. Instead, he throws accusation after accusation, usually without evidence, hoping that some of his derogatory inferences will scandalize his readers. Andy’s primary claim in his public interviews is that antifa is, in fact, an organization, not just an ideology. But in his first chapter, he also claims it is an ideology, and not an organization. He obliterates his own core argument within the first few pages—but no matter. He’ll just step over that and return to sounding the alarm about the violent bad actors in our midst.
Ngo repeatedly claims that local Portland activist Luis Marquez is a member of Rose City Antifa, something he also charges in his lawsuit, and for which he has no evidence. As pointed out by The Guardian’s Jason Wilson, since Ngo is attempting a legal challenge (which names Marquez) against Rose City Antifa, how can we assume any objectivity in his reporting?
“Each of these claims is false, as any competent reporter on this beat in Portland knows, but put that aside for a moment. Ngo has put apparently conflicting factual claims on the public record without further explanation. Is Marquez a leader, or simply a member of Rose City Antifa? Is his claim in the lawsuit false, or is he failing to give his readers what he believes to be the full picture of Marquez’s involvement? Who to believe? Andy the reporter, or Andy the plaintiff?” says Wilson.
There is no reason to believe that Luis Marquez is a member of Rose City Antifa. Marquez has said clearly that this is untrue. Reporters who are on this beat know that it is untrue. But it’s commonly claimed in the right-wing social media sphere, so Andy prints it as if it’s just such a commonsense fact that it doesn’t even require substantiation.
“I think he tries to vilify me…where the truth is that never happened. I got to that action as he [was] milkshaked. So by lying about the interaction, and his bravery in continuing on after being ‘stared’ at, he is trying to allude I’m a violent human—which I’m not,” says Luis Marquez, who says that, contra Ngo’s claims, he had nothing to do with the milkshake incident; he simply showed up to the protest as it was happening. “I think it’s the same with others. I know a few others mentioned and it’s all half-truths [and] mostly lies. I think this book is a huge hit list [for] right wingers.”
During the summer’s protests, some Portland activists brought umbrellas to shield themselves from police crowd-control weaponry. Andy suggests that some of them put razor blades at the end of them, as if they were The Penguin in Batman Returns. No evidence provided. He suggests that a video he has of some people looking through his packages on his doorstep caught Rose City Antifa doing recon work on him. No evidence provided. The sheer number of baseless and unprovable assertions makes this book impossible to fact check. How do you verify a series of hyperbolic claims that lack even a passing resemblance to reality?
Ngo heavily downplays the violence police used against antiracist demonstrators in 2020, which was so extreme that it elicited high-profile public commentary and a government review. In Portland, police used CS gas (which Ngo passionately defends) as well as other unknown chemical weapons, which people report taking the leaves off trees and forcing people to start their menstrual cycle. The gassings often hurt members of the community who were not protesting, even some who were in their homes. Ngo blames the protesters for this, rather than police, suggesting that “antifa” (again, whatever he means by that) instigates violence so that the police will respond with force, and they will appear victims.
This is far from the case. On multiple occasions when I was covering protests, police charged in without warning or provocation and fired off dozens of canisters in a matter of seconds, completely clearing out multiple city blocks. They then fired “less lethal” impact munitions, like rubber bullets, into crowds, leading to a string of serious injuries, including seizures and traumatic brain injuries (which you’d think Ngo would sympathize with). The police handled reporters in kind, including bashing out car windows and slashing the tires of fleeing journalists. When teargas was finally banned, many police refused to protect the community from the Proud Boys. Ngo’s insistence that the left antagonizes police to claim victimhood is a quite obvious instance of projection, given that this approach is straight out of his own playbook.
It was a year of aggressive repression against the left, both in Portland and elsewhere, and yet Ngo persists in claiming that antifa owns the city, and that police and politicians “know” this. This is one of the most profound disconnects between his ideological lens and reality. Far-right activists around the country have claimed that Ted Wheeler is the “antifa mayor”—but really, as Police Commissioner, Wheeler’s finger is on the trigger of the Portland Police Bureau. He “vowed to get tough on antifa,” permitting the overcharging of activists and incredibly violent police tactics. Ngo alleges that antifa has run a coordinated campaign to take over City Council and neighborhood councils, citing activists running for neighborhood associations in an effort to allow for progressive responses to threats on houseless communities. These were neither antifa nor covert—just people with a progressive outlook trying to foment change. Such participation in civic life is construed as universally “antifa,” nuance be damned. The implication is that any time someone helps work towards anti-oppression reforms, they are engaging in a sinister antifa coup.
“When I was undercover on the ground, what I saw was a literal war zone of armed belligerents,” Ngo writes. But, as usual, this is about Andy’s feelings, not reality. I was down at the protest for dozens of nights reporting, and what I saw was a massive community effort. Sure, there were street skirmishes, but there were also mutual aid networks, food depots, medics, and all the things you would expect from a community forging a shared culture as they struggle for civil rights. These people were not the frightful armed hobgoblins his narrative would have you believe. Their efforts represented what humans in crisis always do: cooperate and adapt together.
A Conspiratorial Tradition
Speaking of frightful hobgoblins, Marx’s specter haunts the book. “Some of them wore red shirts and bandanas to broadcast their allegiance to Marxism,” Ngo writes in his opening lines, discussing the day when his world was ended by a milkshake. He says that “Antifa are trained to hide their political affiliations,” and then suggests that what is so pernicious about Black Lives Matter is that they have snuck Marxism into mainstream political discourse.
By invoking “Marxism,” Ngo doesn’t mean any actual method of analysis or distinct radical ideologies—he means anything vaguely leftist. For instance, he considers opposition to police to be Marxism. He sees no nuance in political ideas, and his confused assertions are as hyperbolic as they are embarrassing. He writes vaguely about Frankfurt School theorists (he also confuses them with post-structuralists), but this is a segue into a familiar far-right talking point: the threat of “Cultural Marxism.” This far-right conspiracy theory grossly overstates the influence of figures like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and suggests that their “radical critiques” have poisoned modern America.
These claims are even more vile than they sound: they emerged as an antisemitic conspiracy narrative from white nationalist circles. “Cultural Marxism,” a term invented to lump together a collection of disparate thinkers that no academic would ever conflate, was coined to frame these ideas as part of the plotting of a Jewish elite to confuse gentiles about their own interests.
“Cultural Marxism is an antisemitic conspiracy that claims that the Frankfurt School, a group of primarily German-Jewish intellectuals, have exerted mass control over Hollywood, universities, social movements, and even what is acceptable in public discourse,” says Joane Braune, an academic who has published on “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theories. This antisemitic trope attributes the struggles of the marginalized, including the historic Civil Rights Movement, to a secret Jewish conspiracy, rather than the agency of oppressed peoples struggling for liberation. Cultural Marxism is a reworking of the Nazis’ “Judeo-Bolshevism” conspiracy theory, which blamed Jews for communism, updated for a post-Cold War context. Such conspiracizing has inspired numerous acts of violence, including, most famously, the mass murder of Norwegian children by white nationalist Anders Breivik in 2011. It continues to have popular purchase in neo-Nazi spaces and forums. These ideas were also propagated in a slightly less overt fashion by people like Andrew Breitbart. Andy has no problem taking up this mantle and running with it to make a condemnation of the modern world he finds so problematic.
Ngo also believes that certain reporters are antifa operatives. I have seen the term “Journofa” bandied about (clever, huh?), and Andy spends a great deal of his time on Twitter trying to name-and-shame journalists he deems collaborators. This has led to people losing jobs, receiving harassment, and, in some cases, being singled out in threats by far-right organizations. Ngo elides his role in this and has threatened lawsuits against people who have spoken up about it. A while back, after Ngo and others began sounding the alarm about what they perceived as collaboration between journalists and antifa, several well-known reporters were named in a video titled “Sunset the Media,” which appeared to be a call by the white supremacist terror group Atomwaffen to kill them. This led to a common refrain among activists: “Andy Ngo is a threat to our community and provides kill lists for Atomwaffen.”
Recently, Portland mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone’s former campaign manager, Greg McKelvey, echoed the line on Twitter. Ngo claimed this, among other claims, was libelous. The statement by McKelvey is not without merit—but Ngo responded with the threat of a lawsuit. Said McKelvey:
“He believes that my statements that he has provided kill lists to neo-Nazi groups and rioted with far-right demonstrators amount to defamation. Yet, he is on video laughing with the rioters as they planned their attack, did not report on their plans, and then stood with them as it occurred. Also, he created a list of what he believes to be antifa journalists which was then used to threaten their lives. These things happened,” says McKelvey. “He did not contest my assertion that he is a far-right activist. His tweets are used to mislead people about leftists’ activity and are then used by violent actors to threaten violence on his victims. I am just the latest in a pattern of harm he creates. I believe he chose me because he thought it would help him gain publicity and because I am Black.”
I’m not going to repeat the other names Ngo lists in the book, as there is no reason to further publicize his smears. But I will cover one name: my own. He spends several pages in the book talking about me, calling me an “antifa ideologue” and suggesting I am a “trainer” for Rose City Antifa. This is actually a bit of a walk-back, as he has previously insisted that I am a full member of the group. He has contacted editors of mine to inform them of this. That allegation must not have made it past the attorney at Hachette, because he avoids labeling me as such in the book. The claim by Ngo is untrue, but it seems to be derived from a Project Veritas hidden-camera video of me giving a talk for activists at a bookstore. Ngo has called this was a “radicalization training.” It was actually a talk on the ideological roots of the alt-right, which I thought went pretty well, thank you very much. This is the level of allegation and innuendo we are working with here. (He also says he reached out to me for comment, of which I can find no evidence.)
His claims are not about facts—they are about name sharing. Ngo may not actually be able to prove any connection between these reporters and antifa, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that their names are listed in a book, which will now be considered a definitive source by far-right ideologues. It is a reference guide for which journalists should be reviled and targeted.
Ngo suggests that he was one of the few people who saw antifa coming because the rest of the reporters “didn’t have their finger on the pulse of the city or antifa.” Andy, of course, is the only source you can trust. The book’s failures are only highlighted by its smug criticism of everyone else. His finger-wagging suggests that all of us should be looking to his example, a lecture on journalistic ethics from the most principled among us. Journalists should take note. Andy will show us the way.
Huge portions of the book belabor the story of Andy’s “milkshaking” in 2018, slowed to a bullet-time pace and filled with melodrama and angst. He spends a night in the hospital, his life permanently changed, the violence so overwhelming it threatened to unmake him. Maybe he did have a tough time in the days that followed, so I won’t question his subjective experience of pain. Still, the book is supposed to be about the terroristic threat that antifa poses, but he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing an incident that is laughably minor in comparison to the rest his allegations. It’s minor on any scale.
The short answer is that it’s filler. The book is extremely light on content. The only story Andy has is his own, since he didn’t put in the effort to find any others. The book’s history of antifascism is shallow by any standard, and the slapdash text feels like it was written rapidly, with almost no research. When he does talk about the history of antifascism, he covers nothing in detail. He mentions that far-right violence does exist, but he minimizes it as miniscule, inconsequential. This may be the most reprehensible of the book’s arguments, distorting the actual epidemic of reactionary violence that has happened in the last five years, constituting dozens of deaths and thousands of hate crimes. But Ngo refuses to acknowledge this reality, using an unmeetable standard for designating attacks as right-wing. For example, he refuses to call Jeremy Christian, the white nationalist who murdered two people on a Portland train, a white supremacist. All of this feels intentional, an attempt to erase a commonly understood threat as the construct of a bunch of antifa activists and their journalistic collaborators. Evidence to the contrary doesn’t matter.
Ngo spends a great deal of time suggesting we live in a “grievance” culture, mirroring the language of Intellectual Dark Web figures who blame the ills of modernity on spoiled millennials who were coddled as children. But the reality is that Ngo is a professional victim, and the book focuses heavily on his own inability to defend himself. For pages he unveils his fearful life: he is scared to walk down the street, scared to live in Portland, scared to do actual reporting (though he still claims to be a reporter). His entire career is a grift of eternal victimhood. Michelle Malkin, an ideologue who collaborates with white nationalist Nick Fuentes, created the GoFundMe for Ngo in the wake of his 2018 milkshake incident, which raised close to a $250,000. Ostensibly, the money would be used to “protect Andy Ngo.”
What role is there for the outsized, pathetic image of Andy Ngo? We know why Andy won’t stop being a victim: because his victimhood is lucrative. It has brought him hundreds of thousands of dollars and a major book contract. His celebrity continues to rise as he repeatedly tells the story of how antifa activists targeted him for persecution. Even when he is riding high, he claims censorship. Recently, Portland’s Powell’s Books said they would not sell Unmasked in-store (though they still sell it online), and Ngo and his supporters had a field day. Ngo is plastered all over television. His book is a top seller on Amazon. Yet we are expected to believe he is somehow being silenced.
Ngo serves an important function to the right. “By refocusing the media narrative on the supposedly existential threat posed by antifascist activists, Ngo provided ample support for the right-wing media’s tongue-lashings against the left,” wrote Hannah Gais in Jewish Currents. Ngo’s “journalism” is in one sense just farcical claptrap deployed in service of settling petty grievances and lobbing ideological Molotovs at opponents, but it also plays into the burgeoning reactionary zeitgeist and primes adherents for real violence. We have had this “talk radio”-style agitation for years, but at the present conjuncture, given the growth of the far right, Ngo’s lies and distortions carry particular heft. He is a modernized, social-media-centric propagandist, mobilizing an echo chamber that validates his sensationalism. They are in a symbiotic relationship: without his followers, Ngo has no power, without Ngo, his followers have no direction. They are the foundation of his con, the fools he will separate from their money. But Ngo fools himself too—his popularity is only an outgrowth of his usefulness as an ideological prop. It is hard to imagine that his supporters really respect him.
This moneymaking scheme may reach its peak as Ngo tries to run his frivolous lawsuits through the court system, or his distorted worldview may continue to percolate throughout the right. We do not live in a consensus reality, so there will continue to be a market for these lies. We cannot expect any “neutral” institution to put a stop to Ngo’s charade. Instead, resisting these tactics will require people to tell the truth through counternarratives, and to organize.
Ngo’s book is more than just a grift. It attests to the core of his appeal in that it strings together disparate political and social forces into one overarching, fearmongering narrative. This is what his followers want to hear repeated back to them. This book is the apotheosis of the media spectacle that has surrounded this charlatan. There’s a chance that Ngo’s star may soon decline, whether he exhausts his resources on lawsuits, his fans grow weary of his perpetual victimhood, or if the culture simply moves on from his charade. But whenever Andy does fall, I’m sure antifa will be to blame. Their attacks on freedom are legion; their hatreds legendary. What a blessing that we have this meek yet brave savior to ring the liberty bell. ♦
Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017) and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). His work has appeared in places such as NBC News, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Full Stop.