Book Review: "Unmasked" by Andy Ngo

Andy Ngo is a conservative journalist previously living in Portland OR who made reporting on Antifa his bread and butter. Antifa is more of a tactic than a cohesive or tangible group, but ostensibly it describes the practice of left-wing radicals masking up and engaging in physical altercations at protests and demonstrations with individuals who are determined to be too right-wing (generally labelled as "fash" or "nazis" by Antifa).

Antifa hates Ngo. Like, really really fucking hates him. He unexpectedly became part of the story when he got viciously assaulted in July 2019 with liquid thrown at him and suffering a brain hemorrhage from the assault. Simultaneously, the assault also significantly raised his profile on the national stage, even earning a shout-out from Trump himself.

Ngo's book on Antifa, titled "Unmasked", came out in February of this year.

Maybe the first thing you should know is that I'm by no means an uninterested party on this issue. While politically I'm an anarchist with libertarian tendencies (think Reason Magazine libertarian for the most part), I also choose to fluidly navigate the political currents. I love guns, and motivated primarily with the desire to inspire an appreciation of gun rights to a left-coded audience, I used to be a very prominent member of a certain John Brown Gun Club chapter. I ultimately resigned, but it was literally because of an incident with Ngo. I've been interviewed by Ngo several times, and I'm even in this book.

Probably fair to say that I have an unusually unique perspective on this issue.

The second thing I'll say is: No, I don't recommend this book. It was baffling and extremely frustrating to read at times. Structurally, it's basically a compilation of journalistic accounts of isolated incidents with an attempt to weave it together into a cohesive meta narrative. But throughout, Ngo demonstrates some really inexplicable and blatant blind spots by which an innocent reader is likely to walk away with a severely misleading impression of certain dynamics and events. It's so bad at times (and also almost always unnecessary to his overall point) that I don't even come close to having a coherent explanation for his motivation.

What's also weird is that this is virtually never a result of deliberately false information. To the book's credit, Ngo is very deliberate about citing almost every single one of his claims. There's over 400 footnotes, an additional (!) 35 pages of 'sources', and a motherfucking index (!!) of names and terms.

Like I mentioned earlier, I also have the added benefit of having been interviewed and quoted by Ngo a number of times now. My conversations with him were at times antagonistic and critical of his journalistic approach, but I can say unequivocally that he's never treated me unfairly, quoted me in a misleading way, or otherwise burnished journalistic ethical obligations around sourcing and attribution. But as I read his book I would periodically double-check his sourcing and I was often in shock with the ways he chose to report on some events. If it makes any sense, you can sort of call it "reverse Gell-Mann amnesia".


So I've always had a fond affinity for firearms and gun rights, but in this country the issue is largely 'right-coded' from a cultural standpoint. But this affiliation doesn't necessarily make sense philosophically. One of my favorite essays ever on any topic is titled "The Rifle on the Wall: A Left Argument for Gun Rights". It's really fucking long but well worth a read if you have even a passing interest on the subject, but the basic elevator pitch is "Guns are power, and power is always better widely distributed rather than concentrated. Therefore guns should be widely distributed among the people." So a few years ago, when I saw that leftist gun rights groups were springing up and showing up at protests open-carrying, I was really fucking stoked to join. It didn't hurt that it was named after one of history's greatest white person.

A point of distinction is in order: John Brown Gun Club is not Antifa. Sure, we'd often be at the same location, perhaps in opposition to the same groups, and it's possible that some membership overlapped. But in stark contrast, JBGC members never concealed their identity or covered their faces. We were always armed (but not necessarily openly), and that reality also added a severity to the responsibility which mandated a heightened expectation of discipline compared to the free-for-all chaos you see in Antifa melee brawls. Our discipline was so good that even police supervisors at protests would acknowledge who we are and treat us with a level of respect that you did not see for other protest groups.

I had to be interviewed to join JBGC, and I made it crystal fucking clear to the group that I explicitly did not like Antifa. My impression of Antifa back then hasn't changed much since, and probably got worse actually. But I saw Antifa as group of boorish individuals who were desperate to use any excuse as a passport to satisfy primeval thirst for violence. By contrast of course, Antifa advocates would likely argue that the violence they engaged in was a form of community self-defense pursued specifically to prevent literal fascists and Nazis from gaining power and causing harm. To many who espouse this belief, what's at stake is preventing a Mussolini or a Hitler regime from taking over the country.

But the evidence does not align with this steelman of Antifa. For one, Antifa is by far much more active in extremely liberal cities like Portland, Seattle, Oakland, etc. Of course liberal is not necessarily the same thing as the opposite of fascism, but if the goal was really to prevent the rise of fascism, you'd probably want to be much more active in areas that more closely align with that ideology. Further, probably because they're active in such left-wing friendly cities, they tend to necessarily be hyper-sensitive about their target acquisition with regards to who exactly is a "fascist". By now there have been an embarrassing number of incidents like the Bernie supporter who was severely assaulted with a metal club because the American flag he was carrying coded him as "fash" to Antifa.

I was interviewed by Justin Murphy way back, and I explained in detail what I saw as seriously deficient with Antifa's approach towards violence. As a public defender, I often represent individuals with a serious anger and violence problem, especially domestic violence perpetrators. What's fascinating is that the physical act of violence itself is almost never in dispute, but instead my clients come up (in confidence to their attorney) with very elaborate rubrics to contextualize the violence they meted out as "justified". In DV situations, this usually takes the form of "she provoked me or angered me or humiliated me, therefore my violence was justified/necessary/vindicated." I'm obviously not a pacifist and never had a categorical objection against using violence as a tool, but at the very least I appreciate how utterly destructive it can be and also recognize it as one of the crudest and primordial motivators of mankind. (Tage Rai wrote a book on "virtuous violence" and was interviewed by Julia Galef).

If you want to engage in violence, the responsible thing to do is to make sure you have robust cultural and institutional safeguards in place to make sure you aren't just driven by base and vindictive motivations. This takes the form of several factors for me. First, you should have a specific and articulable goal in mind, to avoid impulsive outbursts which accomplish nothing. Second, the level of violence should be proportional to your objective, to avoid initiating a runaway train of needless destruction. Lastly, you should always be equipped with a high-degree of humility in your endeavors, to make sure you can receive and be amenable to feedback and criticism and ensure your inner animal stays in check.

Antifa fails across the board. The violence they engage in is random, sporadic, and serves no overarching articulable goal. I noted this when commenting on the 6 year prison sentence an Antifa-affiliated man got for beating and nearly killing a man who by every measure appeared to be just a bystander trying to be helpful. What was that almost-a-murder intending to accomplish exactly? No clue. If you truly believe the potential rise of fascism is an existential threat to our society, there's still a serious discrepancy between the threat and the response to it. Antifa generally just picks on low-value "targets" mostly based on opportunity rather than strategic importance.

The violence is also anything but proportional. Antifa tries to outnumber its targets and often goes after isolated individuals who can't defend themselves. And often, these individuals have not harmed or threatened anyone, but are only suspected of maybe being conservative enough to maybe also be a Nazi or fascist. Even more concerning is the severe response that journalists who are deemed not sympathetic enough receive. The argument for the violence directed at right-wing affiliated journalists is in response to a fictitious threat that the journalist is actually trying to photograph events with the specific intent of "doxxing" Antifa individuals. That justification doesn't make much sense to me, since if your goal is really doxxing, it makes far more sense for someone to do so surreptitiously rather than allow their affiliation to leak.

And of course, Antifa does not demonstrate humility when it comes to criticism of their misdirected and disproportional violence. If anything, criticism of Antifa is deemed sufficient proof that you must be a fascist. All these factors make it impossible to ferret out or discourage violence that is borne out and motivated by a manifestation of toxic masculinity and bravado, and the culture of discouraging criticism and humility means the seriously regressive behavior is encouraged, enabled, and further allowed to propagate freely.

On the metric I outline though, JBGC was a completely different beast. Most likely this was primarily because we're carrying fucking guns, but we had a level of severe and heightened responsibility that was palpable. We never instigated any bullshit melees which accomplished nothing. We'd be at demonstrations with rifles and body armor, and that was usually on its own enough to serve as a blanket of calm and de-escalation. I was and remain proud of my affiliation with the group.

But I resigned because my principles on violence were violated. Before Ngo was famous, he happened to be covering a protest that JBGC was also present at. At one point he tried to cross the sidewalk and a bunch angry protestors (who happened to be mostly white) started yelling at this short effete gay Asian man "Nazis go home! Immigrants are welcome here!" (fucking funny as fuck). Troubling for me was that some JBGC members with rifles also joined and blocked his way. I expressed my severe disappointment that an unarmed and non-threatening individual documenting an event in public was met with the implicit threat of firearms. My group refused to publicly admit this was a mistake and that it shouldn't have happened, so I quit.

This was long, but hopefully useful context and background on where my sympathies lie.


So back to Ngo's book. If you have even a passing familiarity with places like this subreddit or general Antifa coverage, you're mostly likely already familiar with most of the anecdotes in Ngo's book. The serious problem with Ngo's book is that he spends most of it describing what is essentially just a string of petty crimes and assaults which normally would not make national news and barely even the local blotter. It's clear he's aware of this deficiency because he tries really hard to string together the chain of anecdotes into a coherent narrative to impress upon the reader that Antifa is a seriously big deal, but he does this by delicately stretching the mozzarella cheese that serves as the definition of "Antifa-affiliated" close to its breaking point.

For a long time a common refrain in defense is "Antifa never killed anyone". Despite my serious misgivings about Antifa, I have to concede this is...true. Or, it was true up until Aug 29 2020 when Michael Reinoehl (a self-described Antifa supporter) shot and killed a Trump supporter near a protest in Portland. You can argue that Antifa has only killed one person, but maybe not for want of trying given their trail of severe assaults. You can also attribute serious property damage, potentially in the billions of dollars across the country. Those are all fair and salient points, but you're still dealing with a supposedly national threat which is comparatively and qualitatively negligible.

For example, Ngo compares the media coverage of two mass shootings which occurred close in time to each other in 2019, the El Paso Walmart shooting with 23 dead, and just a day later the Dayton OH shooting with 9 dead.

When determining whether a specific act was motivated by a particular ideology, you have to demonstrate some nexus between the two. It's fairly clear-cut with Reinoehl: he had a long history of getting into violent confrontations with conservatives at protests in Portland before, and Danielson was a stranger to him (meaning he was not killed due to some personal feud), and Reinoehl basically admitted the ideological component of the shooting when interviewed by Vice. Similarly, the El Paso shooter left no ambiguity regarding his motivation. He posted a 2,300 word manifesto on 8chan bemoaning Hispanic immigration and he told detectives he was specifically targeting Mexicans. It's easy to therefore ascribe that shooting as motivated by white supremacy ideology.

Ngo seriously laments that the Dayton shooting doesn't get as much attention, despite the clear differences both in body count and articulable motivation ("Some victims are valued more in the eyes of the American media than others." Pg 181). He tries really really really hard to paint the Dayton shooting as a manifested example of Antifa violence, but he does this largely by digging through the shooter's social media history and observing that the shooter had extensive Antifa proclivities and affiliations. This is actually true, but that's nowhere near the same thing as concluding the mass shooting was motivated by Antifa ideology. To this day it's not clear exactly what his motivation for the shooting was, especially since the shooter's sibling was one of his first victims. There's no evidence of a political motivation behind the act, despite Ngo's efforts.

While we're on topic, it's helpful to remember that if we narrow our comparison to only mass shooters who were both motivated by white supremacist ideology and personally announced as much on 8chan, we still have a death toll which is 75 times all of Antifa.


Ngo's stretchy mozzarella definition game is manifested by his habit of seeing dog whistles everywhere. Ngo insists, often with no evidence, that innocuous turns of phrase are actually hidden messages scrutable only to the initiated. While he was undercover at CHAZ in Seattle (admittedly an extremely courageous endeavor for him to partake in), he found out that the bathroom code at a nearby burger restaurant was 1312. I'm imagining myself setting up a code, and choosing something that isn't 1111 but is still exclusively only the top row makes intuitive and tactile sense to me. But Ngo believed this was a disturbing reference to ACAB (Pg 35). Of course, it's certainly possible this was intentionally done by the burger place, but Ngo indicates no attempts whatsoever to investigate his suspicions, and simply asserts his conclusion.

Ngo also appears to be terrified of the word "chain". It's true that the Communist Manifesto concludes with the infamous "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains." but Ngo starts to conclude any reference to chains must be a communist dog whistle. According to Ngo, "Our brothers and sisters around the world will continue to live in chains" (Pg 134) is a communist dog whistle.

But here's my favorite by far. If you encounter the turn of phrase "strikes fear in the heart of", what does it make you think of?

To me it's a commonly used idiom in the English language. But this phrase was used in a tweet by Keith Ellison, then one of Minnesota's US Rep and now its AG, in endorsing Mark Bray's gushing book on Antifa. Presumably because Ellison is Muslim, Ngo believes that is sufficient evidence to conclude that "strikes fear in the heart of" is actually explicitly intended to be a reference to Quran 8:12, a verse apparently often quoted by ISIS and other terrorist groups. Ngo quotes the verse as "I will strike fear into the hearts of disbelievers" on Pg 201.

But here's something very weird. I have no idea where Ngo got this specific phrasing, as it literally ONLY shows up in Ngo's book in Google searches! You might already know that the Quran is recited exclusively in Arabic, with converts basically mandated to learn Arabic and discouraged from relying on just translations. I looked up this verse, and neither of the translations (Either from Al-Azhar University or Sahih International) use Ngo's phrasing ("cast horror into the hearts" and "cast terror into the hearts", respectively instead).

So Ngo either made up this verbiage, or found it in some obscure translation which doesn't even exist on the internet, and then instead of assuming it's an innocent English idiom usage, concluded that it's a chilling and explicit jihadist reference by this country's first Muslim Congressman. Impressive acrobatics.


I said before that Ngo never explicitly lies in his book. However, he does have a pattern of very bizarre framings and omissions which seem almost deliberately calculated to leave a false and misleading impression on an unsuspecting reader. There are a number of examples but I want to highlight the most egregious one, where I literally got up from my seat when I encountered it. Take this very short paragraph from pg 206-207:

Fletcher is a Portland activist who fought a mentally unstable man named Jeremy Christian on a moving train in 2017 because he believed he was a white supremacist. The incident resulted in the deaths of two other men when Christian began stabbing the people around him in a fit of rage. Fletcher was seriously injured and survived. Christian was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release or parole.

Now, you might already know which event this is describing. But assume you don't. What would be your impression of what transpired if you were tasked with summarizing it for someone else had you read only what I quoted? (For the record, the excerpt I copied is literally the only description of this event in the entire book, and I am not leaving out any context.)

If you asked me to rephrase, I would say something like "Fletcher instigated a physical altercation with a stranger on a train because he falsely believed the man to be a white supremacist. The man was mentally unstable and became so enraged and provoked by Fletcher's actions, that he stabbed two nearby uninvolved strangers. Implicitly, it appears that the deaths would not have occurred were it not for Fletcher's over-sensitive 'white supremacist radar'." Did you come up with something substantially different than my summary?

Now read the Wikipedia entry of what happened.

This isn't hard. The event was huge news and widely covered. Christian went through a jury trial lasting four weeks with more than a dozen witnesses testifying, all of which is in the public record. Ngo can't plead ignorance or ambiguity in leaving any of these details out. I can't imagine someone choosing to phrase this event the way Ngo did who isn't doing so to intentionally erase Christian's clearly established racist motivations, or to intentionally make it seem like the whole incident was Fletcher's fault. Ngo spends several pages meticulously scrutinizing the social media likes and follows of the Dayton shooter, desperately trying to weave a damning web, but he apparently can't be bothered to include more than this on such a seminal event? Fucking bizarre and inexplicable.


Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of engaging with Ngo's work is he is deliberately opaque regarding the ethos behind his reporting. His Twitter feed is full of supposedly random local news events like a fight involving black people at a Chuck E. Cheese, or posting a mugshot of a black guy suspected of having shot 3 people (without mentioning the guy was a former police detective). I'm very often puzzled by his feed, because I struggle with trying to answer the questions 'why is he choosing to cover this?' and 'why did he choose these particular facts to highlight?'. My best attempt at a steelman is maybe he is trying to subtly highlight a clear disparity with regards to how establishment media outlets report on similar events when the perpetrator is white. There is an uncomfortably correct truism that you often can assume the perpetrator of a crime is not white when a media account omits their race in their reporting.

But beyond that, maybe the best summary of his beliefs is that he has sky-high Lawful alignment and adores authority. I don't believe that Ngo has ever said anything critical about police, except from the standpoint of purported inaction, or communist regimes. Based on my interactions with him, it's probably fair to say that he doesn't believe there is any problem of police misconduct. And I don't mean "no widespread problem of police misconduct", but literally none period because by definition authority is moral.

Ngo and I had what I believe was a very revealing exchange. He was asking me about JBGC, and tried to ask the magic question "Did the organization ever advocate for the overthrow of the government?", apparently trying to corner me into admitting I was part of a criminal enterprise. This happened:

  • AN: Was there any revolutionary agenda with the group?
  • YM: What do you mean by revolutionary?
  • AN: Uhh, I guess I mean it in how- [long pause]
  • YM: I think if you're having trouble defining your own terms, maybe they're too ambiguous.
  • AN: Well, these are terms that are used by antifa and socialist groups and communist groups and-
  • YM: Yeah but I'm not any of those and I'm also not going to assume that you have the same definition as those groups.
  • AN: Well, I'm using their definition I guess.
  • YM: Yeah and I don't know what it means.
  • AN: Complete or dramatic change in the political regime, right? Political system.
  • YM: Yeah sure absolutely.
  • AN: That is what the John Brown Gun Club was wanting to do?
  • YM: Complete and dramatic change? Yes. That's what I and a lot of political activists want.
  • AN: They want to overthrow the government?
  • YM: No, not overthrow the government.
  • AN: Why not? If the government and the system is capitalistic and the group is anti-capitalistic, didn't you want to overthrow it all?
  • YM: So the group was named after John Brown. Do you know his story?
  • AN: He was an anti-slavery - uh, not activist. That's not the right word. Fighter, right? He was killed, wasn't he?
  • YM: Yeah, after he raided a federal armory.
  • AN: And he advocated for armed insurrection.
  • YM: Yes. So, how do you feel about his actions?
  • AN: Well, it was in the context of trying to overthrow the institution of slavery.
  • YM: Yes. So essentially what you're saying is that you support the overthrow of institutions as long as they're bad enough, right? Is that accurate?
  • AN: Hmm yes okay.
  • YM: So then the only real difference is determining whether an institution is bad enough. So if John Brown was saying I want to overthrow the US government because I don't think there's any pathways to getting rid of slavery. Would you say you're against that?
  • AN: But he wasn't fighting the government of the North.
  • YM: He raided a government armory, and this was way before the Civil War, so there was no North or South. He did attack this government facility in order to shore up this insurrection that was explicitly from the standpoint of freeing people in bondage. So I'm curious exactly at what point would you condemn his actions?
  • AN: Do you think it's apt to compare...Well actually I'm glad you brought up this thing because the various Antifa groups and individuals will draw from certain mythos in history from certain figures and battles as a sort of inspiration to justify what they want to do. So if they are militantly opposed to law enforcement and want to attack and harm police, for example, will they view police as enforcers of the fascist government and therefore what they're doing is justified along the same lines of these other resistance fighters in history.
  • YM: I mean, let's consider an even better example, the American Revolution. If you ask me how was the reign of colonial Britain compared to how other countries would have been run I would say living under colonial Britain is not that bad comparatively speaking. But there's a great deal of philosophical support for killing the police at that time, the Redcoats, and actively starting a rebellion that resulted in a hundred thousands people dead. I'm not trying to evade your answer but I find the rubric of this discussion to be a bit puzzling, because it starts by assuming that no one is in support of insurrection when clearly they are. The most radical, most fervent patriots and supporters of the United States clearly support mass insurrection because that was the birthright of this country. So to me, it's an incoherent question because obviously you do support it in some instances. So it just becomes a matter of who exactly do you support insurrection against?

He changed the subject and I didn't get a direct answer from him. So I have trouble formulating a proper understanding of his philosophy. Ngo is not agnostic about which kinds of governments he supports—he spends an entire chapter of his book painstakingly detailing the horrid circumstances his parents fled political imprisonment from Vietnam. Obviously he supports some governments, but not others, but I can't quite tell exactly when this needle flips for him. I tried to put it in context he might better relate to, to better contextualize why someone could have a legitimate qualm with authority, but it's doubtful it went through. I would love to read a more thorough examination of how he approaches this topic, but it's non-existent in his book.

Instead, what we have are near-myopic attempts to explain the motivations of Antifa, BLM, and similarly-situated protestors. He completely fails the Ideological Turing Test. When describing the killing of Rayshard Brooks at a Wendy's drive-thru in Atlanta, Ngo says "Brooks was made into the next BLM and antifa martyr, even though he had an extensive criminal history..." (Pg 22) (emphasis added). Ngo probably thinks the "even though" is sufficiently explanatory, but I have no idea what he is trying to say. Is the implication that having a criminal history makes it categorically impossible to be mistreated by the police? It seems like that's what he's implying, but Ngo doesn't bother explaining.

Portland's prosecutor announced a new policy during the George Floyd protests where it will presumptively be skeptical of prosecuting accusations of assault on law enforcement officers ("[charges] must be subjected to the highest level of scrutiny by the deputy district attorney reviewing the arrest"). Ngo argues this policy change is "a softer way of saying assault on police is conditionally allowed." (Pg 72). But regardless of your position on this policy change, it's very helpful context to at least try and acknowledge the history of how charges of "assault on a peace officer" and "resisting arrest" are arguably abused by law enforcement (watch this video of a man in a wheelchair getting arrested and see if you can identify the 'assault' claimed by police). Without knowing that, you're left with the misleading impression that a prosecution just randomly and for no reason decided to give carte blanche to punching cops. You won't get that context reading Ngo's book.

Ngo appears perplexed that anyone would choose to protest after what happened in Ferguson MO. Ngo argues that Darren Wilson was justified and committed no misconduct, and he does this by citing the fact that a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against him (Pg 130). But the grand jury proceedings in the Wilson case were very unusual, and multiple commentators pointed out that the prosecutor basically acted as Wilson's defense attorney, and seemed to go out of his way to ensure the grand jury would choose not to indict. Famously, grand juries are known to indict a ham sandwich if needed. To be clear, it may be true that Wilson deserved to not be charged with a crime for his interaction with Michael Brown, but you can't arrive at that conclusion based solely on how the grand jury proceedings transpired. Without a contextual understanding of how the prosecutor's actions compared to a typical grand jury proceeding, you're missing a very crucial piece of information.

Ngo isn't necessarily obligated to go out of his way to steelman his opposing view. He clearly has a preferred narrative and it's his fucking book and he can do whatever he wants. But my point here is someone who is so transparently and unquestioningly devoted to authority's inherent moral value is not going to be a good source to properly understand a protest's motivation. You're apt to walk away very confused if Ngo was your only window into this worldview.


Ultimately, you'd be starved to find much insight in this book. Instead, you face a significant risk of walking away with serious misinformation. There is also a completely unbridged gap between the reality and how Ngo tries to herald Antifa as this existential threat to Western Civilization. It's hard to take his claims seriously given how overactive his dog whistle radar is.

Despite the serious issues I have with his work, it's still probably a net good. No one else really covers this beat with a critical eye, and most of it tends to be just swept under the rug as a triviality or preemptively and reflexively defended as righteous by most journalists. Regarding Ngo's work, I think my favorite project of his was his exposure of various hate crime hoaxes. That was invaluable work and almost nobody wanted to tackle. And I wish I didn't have to say this, but for all the criticism I have levied, there is absolutely no justification for the violent assaults he had to endure. The people who attacked him are the worst forms of cowards, circling like vultures against someone by definition who could not defend himself. Antifa activists hilarious try to rehabilitate the horrendous optics of his assault by retroactively justifying with histrionic claims like "Andy Ngo is a threat to our communities and provides kill lists to Atomwaffen", claims which are just so blatantly ludicrous I have no idea if anyone expects it to be convincing to anyone.

Andy Ngo is blessed to have such a prominent national platform. He's positioned so and has the capacity to do really good work if he wanted to. I wish he did.