There’s a folksy saying that grandparents of all stripes like to dispense: If it looks like a duck and acts like a duck, then you shouldn’t be surprised when it starts quacking. Another, perhaps less folksy version of this idiom is Occam’s Razor, the theory that the simplest explanation for an event or phenomenon is usually the most likely.
Nowhere was this demonstrated more quickly than in the case of the meteoric rise and equally rapid fall of Andy Ngo, the provocateur and social media personality who garnered nationwide sympathy last June, when he tweeted that he was attacked by antifascist protesters at a Proud Boys rally. Last week, the local newspaper the Portland Mercury reported that a left-wing activist going undercover as a member of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group known for promoting and engaging in violent clashes with leftist activists, had given the publication an 18-minute video that included footage of Ngo with a group of Patriot Prayer members as the members discuss an upcoming brawl, including weaponry to be used in altercations with antifa. Ngo, who describes himself as a journalist, did not record the conversation, and does not appear to have his camera or notebook out. For part of the footage, he is seen on his phone.
The source told the Mercury that Ngo and Patriot Prayer have an “understanding” that the group offers him protection when he covers rallies in exchange for favorable coverage. While this has not been confirmed, and Ngo strongly denies these allegations, an audio conversation between members of the Proud Boys, released by Willamette Week seemed to confirm that such discussions between Ngo and the Proud Boys had occurred, as one man is recorded saying that Ngo was attacked on June 29th because he refused an offer of protection. “Andy Ngo was fucking told that if he wanted protection from the PBs [Proud Boys], he went in with us and he went out with us,” the man says.
When reached for comment, Ngo directed Rolling Stone to his attorney Harmeet Dhillon, who refuted the allegations made by the Portland Mercury. “There have been suggestions made by that story and others that he is part of that group or embedded in that group or took protection from that group, which is absolutely false,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Nonetheless, the footage was highly embarrassing for Ngo, who has long claimed to be an independent and objective journalist, despite many left-wing activists in Portland accusing him of antagonizing them at rallies and selectively editing his footage to malign the left. Shortly after the footage was released, Quillette, a “free thought” publication with a libertarian bent, deleted Ngo’s byline from its masthead, though founder Claire Lehmann denied to the Daily Beast that it had anything to do with the recently surfaced Patriot Prayer footage, as did Ngo in an op-ed published by the Spectator. (When asked about this, Dhillon says, “the suggestion that the video coming out is tied with [Ngo cutting ties with Quillette] is false and defamatory.”)
But the issue wasn’t so much that Ngo had finally been “exposed” as a right-wing provocateur as opposed to a journalist. It was that he’d managed to successfully convince so many ostensibly reasonable people otherwise, despite significant evidence to the contrary — and, in so doing, did some serious damage in the process.
Ngo has a long and rich history of trolling those on the left. While getting his master’s degree in political science at Portland State, he became convinced that a “social justice frenzy” was rapidly sweeping the nation, as he told a reporter who profiled him for BuzzFeed, becoming particularly focused on what he viewed as the increasingly urgent threat of Islam. In 2017, Ngo attended an interfaith student panel and tweeted a paraphrase of a Muslim student’s comments about how non-Muslims would be treated in an Islamic state. After he posted the tweet, which used inflammatory language out of context, Ngo was fired from the campus newspaper, the Portland State Vanguard. At the time, the editor-in-chief of the Vanguard said the firing was not motivated by partisanship, and that Ngo was removed from his post because the tweet was a “half-truth” that “incited a reaction and implicated the student panelist,” thus putting them in imminent jeopardy. But Breitbart and other national right-wing news outlets salivated over the story, painting Ngo as an innocent victim on the pyre of political correctness and liberal media bias.
It was the experience of getting fired that apparently gave Ngo his first taste of martyrdom. He started fashioning himself as a gonzo independent journalist of sorts, showing up at various far-right rallies in Portland, a city that has increasingly become a battleground of the culture wars. He developed a knack for obtaining footage of anti-fascist protesters that leaned into preconceived notions of radical leftists, making them look violent, red-faced, angry, or even just irrational, a gimmick that landed him a handful of spots as a commentator on Fox News. He also found the time to rack up a few bylines, penning an investigation into “the suspicious rise” of gay hate crimes in Portland for the New York Post, which notably quoted a gay Proud Boys member as saying it was “the most welcoming organization that I have ever been a part of.”
But it wasn’t until Ngo was attacked at the June rally that he truly ascended to the ranks of right-wing media shit-stirrer. “Attacked by antifa. Bleeding. They stole my camera equipment. No police until after. waiting for ambulance . If you have evidence Of attack please help,” he tweeted, later adding that he had been diagnosed at the ER with a brain hemorrhage and that antifa had thrown quick-dry cement milkshakes at him. (This claim was later debunked.) Footage also surfaced on Twitter of Ngo at the rally, being doused with a milkshake and silly string, and getting punched by an antifascist protester.
Almost immediately, Ngo garnered tremendous sympathy from both sides of the political aisle, even raising $195,000 from a GoFundMe set up following the altercation. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy swiftly condemned the anti-fascist protesters, saying, “The hate and violence perpetrated by Antifa must be condemned in the strongest possible way by all Americans. I pray for full and speedy recovery for journalist Andy Ngo,” while Sen. Ted Cruz rallied for antifa to be labeled a domestic terrorist threat. CNN anchor Jake Tapper retweeted an interview with Ngo condemning antifa, and Democratic candidates Andrew Yang, Rep. Eric Swalwell, and Sen. Joe Biden also weighed in to defend Ngo, with a campaign spokesperson for the former vice president telling the New York Post, “violence directed at anyone because of their political opinions is never acceptable, regardless of what those beliefs might be,” and that “Andy Ngo’s attackers should be identified and investigated.”
Immediately, he metamorphosed from being just another right-wing troll scrambling for attention to a blank slate, a canvas onto which political figures and journalists of all stripes could project their goals and desires. For those on the right, condemning the boogeyman of antifa was a no-brainer, an easy and convenient way to score points with the base; for those on the left, it was an opportunity to telegraph being fair, rational, and level-headed, while simultaneously taking a few steps away from their black-clad brethren further left. And for members of the media, the industry to which Ngo ostensibly belonged, it was an opportunity to demonstrate, in the face of constant and unrelenting allegations of liberal bias, just how unbiased they could be.
What the buttoned-up campaign spokespeople and hair-shellacked CNN anchors could not have predicted, however, was that the legitimizing of Ngo would come at a cost. Not only did Ngo become a far more prominent media presence, warranting an expansive (if critical) profile in Buzzfeed and a byline in The Spectator, the world’s oldest English-language publication, he would also become the driving force behind — as Tess Owen of Vice put it — the increasingly hostile “national attitudes toward the decentralized [antifa] activist movement.” The coverage of the Portland attack helped to spur Sen. Ted Cruz’s bill to designate antifa as a terrorist organization, which was introduced in Congress in July. In the hours following the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, which took more than 20 people’s lives, Ngo was instrumental in promoting the conspiracy theory that antifa had played a role; when that was thoroughly debunked, he helped perpetuate the theory that the man behind the Dayton, Ohio shooting was a member of antifa, despite the fact that there is no evidence he was involved in local activism or organizing.
Even if Ngo himself were a fraudulent journalist, and the victim narrative he promoted was also under fraudulent pretenses, his ability to get bad ideas in front of a mainstream audience was all too real. Because above all else, the attack on Ngo — and his ability to successfully spin it into a lucrative and semi-legitimate media career — appeared to shift the narrative regarding extremist violence more toward the far right’s favor. For groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, “what allegedly happened to Andy Ngo was galvanizing for them in a lot of ways,” Keegan Hankes, a researcher and analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, previously told Rolling Stone. “It got a lot of media attention and it reinforced something the Proud Boys have pushed for years, which is the real threat is the violent left.”
The issue with this narrative is that this is verifiably not the case; though members of antifa have committed violent acts, that number is dwarfed by those committed by far-right extremists, says Hankes. That’s also the truth according to FBI director Christopher Wray, who has said that white supremacists constitute “the vast majority” of domestic terrorism threats. And when considering the very real, very immediate threat of far-right radicalization, promoting the conspiracy theories of a huckster like Ngo serves as little more than a distraction.
While the Portland Mercury story could cost him whatever was left of his mainstream reputation, it certainly won’t cost him his career. In the ever-expanding right-wing media ecosystem, there is plenty of room for trolls with a knack for video-editing software and gaming Twitter to find an audience, particularly if they are telling that audience what they know they want to hear. It should, however, serve as a chastening teachable moment to those who took him seriously, if only for a short time. That way, when some other ambitious young man with slick and dangerous ideas starts quacking, we’ll all know exactly what to call him.