We’re Being Played

Shane Burley

Milkshakes aren’t terrorism.

“Andy Ngo is an independent journalist in the Pacific Northwest… He was at an antifa rally over the weekend, minding his own business, covering the news—he’s a journalist—when he was beaten almost to death by antifa… Andy, I’m glad you’re capable of doing this interview. Tell us what happened?!”

Tucker Carlson offered the perfect platform for the far-right journalist and provocateur Andy Ngo to tell his story. Ngo is a slight and nebbish man, not known for a boisterous or loud presence. Slowly, he told Fox News viewers a harrowing story of being attacked by a vicious mob that was out for blood. He stuttered slightly and went at a snail’s pace, exemplifying the disorientation typical of a traumatic brain injury. Carlson, for his part, repeatedly returned to the blunt force trauma that Ngo alleged he sustained.

Carlson was not the only person to seek out Ngo that week. His story began trending after CNN’s Jake Tapper retweeted a video of the attack on Ngo posted by a reporter at the Oregonian. Tapper commented, “Antifa regularly attacks journalists; it’s reprehensible.”

Within a few hours, the videos of Ngo’s altercation and the feverish first-person accounts he spoke into his cell phone camera became the top trending story on Twitter in the U.S. Soon #AntifaTerrorists reached the most popular hashtag slot, cementing Ngo’s story as yet another example of an embattled conservative journalist subjected to the increasingly volatile cruelty of the militant left. This came largely because of the tone of stories around the incident, framing what happened to Ngo as the most recent case of the common “terrorism” by antifascists, and Twitter activists used this rhetoric to make sure that any discussion of the incident inferred the terrorist nature of the movement. Narratives of far-left villainy, like Ngo’s, have become a staple of conservative click-bait. Burgeoning social media stars like Ngo feature as both their protagonists and propagators, building careers on the outrage they drum up in their followers while claiming to barter in neutral reporting and brave truth-telling.

On the Ground Reporting

On Saturday, June 29, a large coalition of community and activist groups held a counterdemonstration to protest two complementary rallies organized that day by the Proud Boys and #HimToo, a not-quite-yet movement created by affiliates of far-right group Patriot Prayer. Both right-wing groups have held a number of unambiguously violent rallies around Portland over the past few years. Every summer since Trump was elected these organizations, which bill themselves as “nationalist conservatives,” have publicly rallied and marched with no political platform beyond a string of bigotries and opposition to the left. Participants suit up in body armor and helmets and rush counterdemonstrators, leading to brutal fights that have left a number of people hospitalized.

The Proud Boys billed the June 29 event as the Battle for Portland 2, a reference to last year’s similar rally in which they collided with counterdemonstrators and initiated gang-style attacks that left their opponents with cranial fractures, staining concrete red with blood. The antifascist coalition on June 29 consisted of more than a dozen organizations, including Pop Mob (short for Popular Mobilization), which focuses on “everyday antifascism” and organizes events that involve a broad base of community members who oppose hate. For the late-June counterprotest, Pop Mob created a carnivalesque atmosphere themed around milkshakes—a riff on the recent protest meme popularized in Britain by antifascists who throw melted ice cream on fascists in street mobilizations. Basement tracks jammed on a PA system and people danced in booty shorts; it was hot, loud, and fun, drawing a contingent of hundreds who gathered before the main rally, partying and drinking milkshakes.

Ngo was among the first to arrive at the antifascist demonstration, brandishing a GoPro on a pole and wearing goggles. His protective eyewear was suggestive: confrontation expected. In the weeks prior, Ngo had consistently beaten the drum on Twitter, repeating that he was nervous about how the day would play out. He was, admittedly, already a pariah in leftist spaces.

Ngo snaked his way through the crowd, pushing his new GoPro in front of increasingly annoyed counterprotesters. The antifascist protesters planned to block the far-right from moving freely through the city; before their march even began, Ngo found himself in an altercation with some of the protesters, who threw milkshakes on him and hit him on the head. The Portland Police later Tweeted that there were allegations that the milkshakes had “quick dry cement” in them, despite there being zero evidence of this.

Ngo then created a mass media story by livestreaming the aftermath of his conflict on Twitter, saying that he had to go to the hospital for what was later ruled a brain bleed. He said police refused to help him and forced him to walk back through the crowd that had assaulted him, creating a harrowing portrait of a journalist under siege for simple reporting.

A New Kind of Conservative Celebrity

Ngo first gained minor notoriety after he was fired from his editorial position at the Portland Vanguard, the newspaper for Portland State University where Ngo was a graduate student, for how he characterized the comments of a Muslim student at an interfaith event. Breitbart picked up the story and ran the headline “Muslim student claims that non-believers will be killed in Islamic countries,” a point which the Vanguard felt mischaracterized the student’s actual comments. Ngo was fired four days after the event, but that is really only where his career began. Ngo presents himself simply as a neutral observer, the “true journalist,” unburdened by pesky ideals.

He then went to the right-wing National Review and published a story, “Fired for Reporting the Truth,” that argued it was the intolerant left that forced him to be fired from his position. In this new right-wing magazine world, political correctness stands in the way of reality, and to be a true journalist you are going to have to exist as an embattled heretic. Breitbart continued to champion this story by making Ngo a poster-boy for conservatives persecuted in colleges, the perfect narrative for a right-wing blogosphere that wanted to portray university campuses as political thunderdomes.

Ngo went on to pen a number of Islamophobic op-eds and articles, including an article in the Wall Street Journal that suggested there were “no go zones” in London because of Muslim immigrants and that England is becoming an Islamic country. More recently, Ngo has focused on trying to reveal reported hate crimes as hoaxes (particularly those committed against trans women) and exposing what he sees as the underreported violence of antifa. On an earlier appearance with Tucker Carlson, Ngo said that the left doesn’t like him because he “goes after the grifters.” Tucker agreed, saying “they hate the truth.”

Preparing for a Reaction

Ngo presents himself simply as a neutral observer, the “true journalist,” unburdened by pesky ideals. His detractors, meanwhile, question this portrayal, arguing that he is a political actor who engages in theatrics to draw a reaction.

On the spectrum of what gets to count as journalism, Ngo is hardly unique. Yet his recent antics have placed him front and center in a cottage industry on the far-right edges of political journalism which insists that the mainstream media operates with near conspiratorial levels of bias against the right. All the while, supposedly silenced right-wing figures like Ngo have been interviewed on the biggest news networks; even neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was recently invited on CNN as a commentator.

Owing to recent efforts by social media giants to snuff out the spread of hate speech and fake news, many conservative pundits have begun championing the idea that conservative voices are under attack. In May, the Trump administration opened an investigation into this possible bias, going as far as to put up a website where people could report their experiences of censorship. Pro-Trump commentators Diamond and Silk, video bloggers who are often trotted out by far-right politicians like Republican Congressman Steve King as an alternative image of the MAGA crowd because they are black women, appeared at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2018 to talk about the censoring of conservative voices on Facebook, including their own (despite a lack of evidence to support such claims). Tucker Carlson owes his rise to prominence on Fox News to his lambasting of the liberal media. Following Ngo’s pained account of his attack on Carlson’s show, the host was swift to remind his audience (falsely) that CNN had defended the very same antifa that so brutally ambushed this poor journalist.

“Ngo presents himself simply as a neutral observer, the “true journalist,” unburdened by pesky ideals.”

The same rhetoric has found purchase in campus organizing, where organizations like the nationalist Turning Point USA formed to support the campus conservatives allegedly under attack by the largely liberal-leftist faculty and student body. There is no safe space, they cry, for the silent minority, and since they represent truth and sanity, this constitutes a full-scale assault on civilization. The message has been further amplified by public facing members of the white-nationalist adjacent “Alt-Light.” Figures like Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, among others have made professions of self-victimization. Crowdfunding sites like Patreon, a great resource for struggling independent journalists, also provide a financial infrastructure for those selling no more than unedited livestreams in which they “own the libs” and affirm the toxic hopes and fears of the far right. Meanwhile, publications like the Daily Caller, Quillette, Breitbart, and Heat Street echo the same sentiments under the guise of serious journalism and intellectual argument.

InfoWars, which used to largely peddle conspiracy theories about nefarious Deep State actors, aliens, Bohemian Grove, genetic manipulation, 9/11 trutherism, and the like, shifted coverage during Trump’s ascendancy. Instead of just exposing the hidden truths of the week, the InfoWarriors started crossing the street at Trump rallies to see the counterdemonstrators, forcing members of the public into unpredictable antagonistic conversations on camera. The number of views on YouTube soared, readership figures rose, and Super Male Vitality (a snake-oil supplement for men hawked on the InfoWars website) sold like gangbusters.

Today’s right-wing voices use a shared lexicon to decry the left and its alleged collaborators in the state and corporate world, who threaten the rights and prosperity of “normal Americans.” “From my cold dead hands,” “enough with PC culture,” “what about free speech?” In the media ecosystem of the far right, a slanted reality is produced and reaffirmed: a world is projected in which demographic, political, and economic change threatens all that Americans hold dear. The subtext, as ever, is that “American” refers to white, heterotypical conservatives. And there are a thousand Internet hucksters screaming these all-American truths, forty-seven different ways on a 24-hour livestream cycle.

The far right’s consensus reality has little room for the facts that bash up against it. The fact, for example, that between 2009 and 2018, white supremacist and far-right extremists were responsible for 73 percent of extremist murders in the US is not pertinent to the terror narratives Ngo and his fellow travelers want to tell and sell. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the far-right attacks are only increasing, with the number of fascist attacks hitting its highest peak in over two decades in 2018. Antifa, on the other hand, has been responsible for no deaths, and instead has been regularly credited with defending communities from far-right violence. Recounting his experience protesting the intolerable 2017 United The Right rally in Charlottesville, scholar and activist Cornel West said, “we would have been crushed like cockroaches were it not for the anarchists and the antifascists.”

Ngo’s credentials are almost solely founded on his identity as a defender of truth against the militant leftists intent on returning us to the dark ages. He has few bylines besides op-eds and does little reporting other than streaming from social media, yet for his supporters he is a rallying point, a journalist beyond repute who is suffering for all of us in the face of anti-journalistic oppression. Quillette and right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin jumped to his defense and created a GoFundMe titled “Protect Andy Ngo,” complete with a close-up shot of a tearful Ngo shortly after the attack. The fundraiser cleared almost $200,000—over four times an average reporter’s salary. It will buy him much more than a new GoPro (the stated intent of the fundraiser), and yet the money has continued to flow in, not because Andy needs it, but because the people donating felt they needed to do something. They needed to do something about antifa, something about political correctness, something about the instability of their jobs, and about immigration and trans students in bathrooms and the left and their lives. The world is hard and change is unforgiving, and there is this guy, meek and desperate and indicative of the world that has harmed them, too. The donations trickled in ten and twenty dollars at a time, not for Ngo’s recovery, but for the narrative he represents and continues. In the media ecosystem of the far right, a slanted reality is produced and reaffirmed: a world is projected in which demographic, political, and economic change threatens all that Americans hold dear.

After the first GoFundMe campaign ended, Ngo created a follow-up fundraiser on PubliusLex where he is trying to raise $100,000 “to bring the violent members of antifa to justice.” I’m sure he’ll make double that.

The Story We Tell

Following Ngo’s attack, journalists around the country came to his defense, ignoring nearly all context and consequences. Ostensibly left-liberal sources like Vox joined the indignant chorus, as did figures like Joe Biden. In all their righteous outrage, Ngo’s mainstream defenders missed that this was not simply an incident of antifa-on-journalist violence, but a political conflict between a far-right agitator and his angry detractors. For certain journalists who have been hassled on the job, which is many of them in this increasingly hostile reporting work environment, Ngo’s narrative resonated. One after another, outlets pumped out think pieces about the danger to journalists evidenced in this incident, missing the salient fact that this was not an attack on journalists, it was a conflict with Andy Ngo.

It’s no accident that other journalists walked away from the same event unscathed. Certain behaviors lead to conflicts, like shoving a camera in people’s faces, or appearing friendly to one group of organizers, while hostile to another. This is Ngo’s modus operandi. You don’t have to justify what happened to him to understand why it did; it was not the result of reporting, but instead the consequence of a political and interpersonal conflict. What happened to Ngo reflects less on the world of embattled journalism than it does on the state of antagonistic right-wing content production. The easiest way to get such content is to provoke it, to ride existing social fissures into moments of conflict; nothing does that like shoving a camera in someone’s face and shouting straw man questions. A predictably angered reaction confirms the hypothesis Ngo sets out to prove.

“In all their righteous outrage, Ngo’s mainstream defenders missed that this was not simply an incident of antifa-on-journalist violence, but a political conflict between a far-right agitator and his angry detractors.”

Ngo’s work is targeted, not accidental, and results in real-world consequences for his selected antagonists. As he drummed up support after his assault on June 29, the far right went into a violent rage, lashing out at the activists who had organized the milkshake protest, other journalists, and the city at large. Portland City Hall had to be shut down because of a bomb threat, leftist journalists received threatening messages online (myself included), and threats were sent to local activists promising death and dismemberment on camera. The false allegations of “quick drying cement” in the vegan milkshakes resulted in those organizers receiving death threats, while none of them had been personally implicated in any sort of violence themselves. Patriot Prayer supporters then organized a follow up rally in Ngo’s name, promising to go to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s house. Proud Boys and InfoWars celebrities promised to return to Portland on August 17 to violently confront “The Antifa,” or the city, or the mayor, or whomever they deem an enemy on the street that day.

Prior to the Portland incident, Ngo was already known for singling people out in a way that can focus right-wing resentment on an individual or a group like a laser. Following his Islamophobic stunt at the college paper, he clashed with Oregon CAIR over his statements associating the nationwide CAIR with suspected terrorism and hate crime hoaxes.

During a post–May Day rally hosted by Portland bar Cider Riot, members of Patriot Prayer showed up and began pepper-spraying and assaulting attendees and patrons. Witnesses at the bar reported that Ngo arrived just before Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson and his entourage, in perfect time to gather good conflict footage for his video stream.

Ngo barters in double standards; the political activities and commitments of his ideological opponents make them fair game for harassment and violent confrontation. Yet any confrontation with Ngo based on his own political allegiances and actions are deemed unjustified, if not monstrous. The journalists and academics Ngo labels as extremists are treated as worthy of intimidation, undeserving of the protections accorded real journalists and writers. When Quillette published a spurious study, based on no more than Twitter connections, claiming to name journalists (myself included) who were involved with antifa, Ngo helped amplify it. As a consequence, one neo-Nazi created a YouTube video featuring a number of the named journalists, with explicit calls for their deaths. Following the Cider Riot attacks, he revealed the name of a leftist woman who had her vertebrae cracked by a Patriot Prayer affiliate’s baton. He appeared to downplay the violence she faced, stressing that she was involved in an unrelated protest in the previous year. She was not just a victim but a political actor. Maybe she had it coming.

For Ngo and his followers, it is the left that is a priori violent, spectacularized in media myth-making about Antifa™. The reality is that antifascist protest, even when confrontational, is generally intended as an act of community defense against far right violence and hate. When, as was the case in Portland, a notoriously violent, racist hate group returns to your hometown, threatening further violence, it is both reasonable and righteous to call for defensive and bold protest action. Yet, when a minor Twitter star reframes melted ice cream as a weapon, the real site of violence is obscured, further legitimizing the very real victimization of marginalized community members.

Cementing the Enemy

Antifa itself has become a punching bag in a way few could have predicted. Its not a particularly new social movement or protest practice; networks like Anti-Fascist Action and Anti-Racist Action long predated Trump’s rise. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Anti-Fascist Action created mass mobilizations to break up the extreme right National Front and, later, the British National Party, around England, often engaging in mass conflicts with fascists in spectacles much larger than what we typically see in the US. Likewise, Anti-Racist Action went into areas where neo-Nazis were recruiting in the US, such as music venues, and physically removed them. Today’s antifa iterations inherit parts of these well recognized strains of resistance. But as the GOP’s base has moved to the right, increasingly intersecting with white nationalism, a wider swathe of people have been pulled into antifascist conflict. For the growing far-right media and political sphere, the idea of being a target of antifascist protest is intolerable.

Ngo and his cadre put public pressure on Donald Trump to make a statement about the Portland attack. When he finally did, the president pushed the exact buttons that the far right hoped he would. “They better hope that the opposition to antifa decides not to mobilize,” said Trump, “[Antifa] don’t go after our construction workers who love us. They don’t go after the police. They live, like, in the basement of their mom’s home. Their arms are this big [skinny].” The narrative has been cemented, that antifa is both dangerous and weak, a threat and an embarrassment. Antifascist motivations are wholly obscured in such a narrative, and far right violence ever more legitimized. “They never go after Bikers for Trump,” he said, neglecting the fact that antifa groups have been in conflict with that very demographic, the violent “independent Trumpist” base, the missing link between conservatism and white nationalism.

The facts remain: antifascists are not responsible for the kind of violence their opponents perpetrate. It’s not even the same league, not even part of the same universe. Far-right organizations head into liberal towns so as to inspire violence, both their own and whatever they think they can stoke in their opposition by creating threatening situations in which antifascist organizers are forced to respond. This is the organizing strategy of the Proud Boys, it is journalistic strategy of figures like Ngo. Even if the two parties do not coordinate with one another, they are of the same spirit.

The far right increasingly sets the tone for the rest of the US media-sphere, in which their talking points become our fulcrums of debate, and Andy Ngo’s oh-so-brutal attack by antifa was one such moment, designed, as it was, for mass social media sharing.

It would be wrong to suggest that Andy Ngo invented this model, but we’ve been played by this grift for years. Social media algorithms, all developed to serve and fuel an outrage model, one that systematically restructured our attention spans to respond to the kind of content that Alt Light personalities deliver. And in these boom/bust, rise/fall, grow/collapse cycles, why not make your point as egregious as possible? I mean, it certainly seems like antifa attacks all journalists and conservatives and America itself. Only a brave and important bearer of truth would point this out, and so you should probably donate. We have to keep fighting, do you know what would happen if we gave in? They would be at your door next.