Andy Ngo, “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Plan to Destroy Democracy” (2021) – I know I’ve lamented before the lack of interesting voices on the contemporary right. This constitutes a problem for me on a number of levels: one of my tasks is to read this shit, good or bad, and it would be nice if more were good; historically, there have been plenty of good right-leaning writers; and I suppose some part of me still wants to find worthy opponents. I knew Andy Ngo, grifter and professional victim, wouldn’t be the guy to provide any of that stuff, when I picked up his big leap from Twitter to bound paper books. My expectations were not high. Ngo still managed to disappoint.
Remember when people talked about how slick right-wing media was, back when cable news and talk radio were still a-forming and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were taking the world by storm? Well, presumably now that they know that their base exists in the decaying minds of the old (and the pre-decayed minds of the willfully ignorant young), it seems they don’t really try that hard anymore. Or maybe books are such loss leaders, something to give an uncle for Christmas, it just doesn’t matter?
In any event, I went in expecting slickness. I thought it would be a smooth propaganda pill. It wasn’t. “Unmasked” is a poorly organized, underedited mess. Speaking as someone who has given some thought to the mixture of reporting, political polemic, and memoirs that Ngo is attempting here, “Unmasked” is mostly a good indicator of what not to do.
The usual question in the culture at large and when dealing with the right in particular is “is this person lying, or stupid?” I asked myself that plenty of times reading “Unmasked,” but structurally, the more relevant question is often “Is Andy Ngo (and his editors) completely incompetent, or is he/are they trying to be fancy?” The ways in which this text arranges reportage, history, polemic, and Ngo’s personal story (it leans a lot on Ngo getting his ass kicked by antifa once, and his parents fleeing Vietnam after Uncle Ho stole his mom’s slaves or something) make zero sense, and there’s no introduction that tries to explain. The chapter order seems like they put them through random.org to make a table of contents, and within chapters, there’s often little rhyme or reason as to what paragraph goes where. The dispiriting conclusion I came to is that Hachette, a mainstream press (they also published antifascist Talia Lavin’s “Culture Warlords,” in the same catalog!), decided that their audience just didn’t give a damn. You’d figure Regnery might have more pride of workmanship, if not respect for their readership.
This is basically “Spooky Stories To Tell In The Dark” but aimed towards Fox News grandpas instead of towards pre-teen children. You’d figure trying to appeal to an audience that had completed their formal education, not just begun it, would make Ngo and his editors more attentive to form, not less, but alas. You could make something, not necessarily “good,” but at least interesting and provocative out of this. But no. And really, why bother? No one is reading this to learn anything, except maybe for me and some other antifascists trying to dope out what the other side is thinking.
They aren’t thinking. This is a dangerous thing for me to think- surely someone somewhere is thinking something, and if I assume they’re not I could get complacent. I’ll buy that some cops are thinking. Maybe some think tank types, and perhaps someday I’ll find an actually interesting contemporary right-wing thinker toiling away in obscurity, probably on a blog somewhere. But for the most part, no. They’re feeling and reacting. This is a Fox News segment in prose. Ever try to read the transcripts of a Fox News show? Ever try it for three hundred pages? You’re not going to get any actual thought there. The thought comes from behind the scenes- what combination of (small, often false, always decontextualized bits of) information, images, and sounds will make our target audience’s lizard brain react the way we want it to? Without images and sounds, not only does it lack anything for the human brain, but the lizard brain within the human brain is left hungry, too.
Among other things, Ngo made the baffling choice to try to do riot porn (at one point he tries to ding the left for calling it that but basically forgets his point midway through the paragraph) in text. That’s hard even for good writers. Andy Ngo is a bad writer, and his attempt to document seemingly every time a Portland teen winged a water bottle at a riot cop line just makes the whole thing tedious. To the extent there’s a method here, I guess it would be just sheer repetition to get across a sense of crisis and beat down resistance to it. It’s another Fox News standby that might work in prose from a good writer, but again, we’re stuck with Ngo.
Lying, or stupid? That question comes into play with what rhetoricians might call “ethos”- how Ngo sells himself to sell his story. The most effective post-Watergate anglophone right-wing propaganda has relied on humor. You can do gravitas and danger to get across a specific point — like “we need to invade Iraq” — but it was humor that laid the groundwork, like the meme “anyone who cares about peace is an idiot, a pussy, and a hypocrite, and poorly-dressed to boot.” Reagan’s smile, Stone and Parker’s and Judge’s jokes, the altright’s memes… well, Ngo goes in a different direction. He is completely humorless throughout. GIS reveals an older millennial who can, indeed, smile, but it’s the smile of lost livestock, not that Reaganite sneer. Ngo is harmed, not harmer. He insists he is merely center-right, whatever that means now. He probably means it, no matter how much cover he gives the likes of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys.
The closest thing to an intrinsic interest to “Unmasked” is in how Ngo weaponizes gormlessness. Graduate students don’t have a ton of analytical advantages beyond just time to develop them, but they’ll have an edge in understanding this: Ngo is that student who wanders into your cubicle genuinely unsure of why he got that patronizing, generous B. He deserved a B- but he wants an A- at least. He tried so hard! You can point out a few things he got wrong, some bad writing tics like overuse of passive voice (Ngo likes his passive voice). But you can’t just tell him “you said nothing and repeated cliches for five pages” without literally reading the whole damned paper aloud to him, with commentary. So you bump him up to B+ so he’ll leave your cube, unless the passive voice was so egregious you can hold on to that unadorned B.
Put a camera in your cube, and who do you think a viewer would sympathize with? The overeducated lout trying to get back to his Twitter browsing or the nice clean cut kid explaining how hard he tried? It’s precisely that dynamic Ngo tries to exploit. It’s the closest to smart he gets. Are the gormless really gormless or do they fake it for effect? One of the good lessons of the wonderful “The Good Soldier Svejk” is that it doesn’t have to be either/or. Few people are so gormless they can’t figure out basic patterns, like that when they lean into their gormlessness with a sucker, they get sympathy, or money, or better grades, and so it is with Ngo. And there’s no bigger bunch of suckers than the Fox News audience he’s cultivating.
So Ngo acts shocked, shocked! That angry people in groups he routinely denounces maybe don’t want him around and are willing to physically chase him from their presence. Shocked, shocked! That people don’t like capitalism or think maybe it has a relationship with racism. Is he really shocked, really that gormless, or is it an act meant to help get him over, differentiate him from real right-wing ideologues? Does it matter? For my money, only if you can operationalize the difference. Let know if you can.
How bad is it when a non-historian’s half-assed historical section is the best part of a book? Not a good part, mind, but it’s less actively mendacious than the rest of the book. When Ngo relates that the East German government made a big deal out of being antifascist while deploying the Stasi (the ORIGINAL cancel culture!) against its people, does he actually think that has anything to do with antifa, or is he being cynical? Who cares. One place that seems to hint against gormlessness is his consistent habit of misgendering and deadnaming. If he was that simple and non-ideological, Forrest Gump with a GoPro, he could show some basic respect. He doesn’t even bother with fun conspiratorial cork board stuff! Just notes Democrats are less febrile about antifa than Republicans and that the NLG bails them out of jail. Jesus. When you can’t even bother with that, what can you do? ‘