The Making of Andy Ngo
The right-wing provocateur’s grift exposing “the tyranny of the left” worked—until it didn’t.
ON AUGUST 26TH, the day after a damning Portland Mercury investigation pulled back the curtain on Andy Ngo’s chummy relationship with the Portland-based far-right group Patriot Prayer, Fox News’s favorite Antifa victim found himself out of a job. In one of the least convincing PR ploys ever, Claire Lehmann—the editor of the far-right, skull-shape-obsessed website Quillette—took to Twitter to announce that Ngo, who, until that point, had been on her site’s masthead, was “moving onto bigger & better projects.”
The 33-year-old provocateur, despite his pretenses to the contrary, wasn’t a reporter. His portfolio consisted of a few ham-fisted op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and other conservative publications, and a much more substantive collection of selectively edited video clips meant to embarrass the left. As BuzzFeed observed recently, much of his work, including his widely mocked “journey” into the “no-go zones” of London—an idea invented by the far right to depict majority-Muslim communities in major urban areas as intolerant and dangerous—exemplified what Max Read has called “busybody journalism.” There was no clarity in Ngo’s work; as Read noted, Ngo provided less the kind of “edification you associate with good journalism than the heightened anxiety and fear you associate with a good crime drama.”
Even so, Ngo’s limited body of work brought him a surge of notoriety this year. Ngo had long trailed Portland’s warring political factions, on the hunt for sensational footage that could depict the left as dangerous and unhinged. But it wasn’t until this summer that he managed to thrust himself into the center of the story. In June, after Antifa activists punched and “milkshaked” him—which is exactly what it sounds like—at a protest in Portland, Ngo claimed to have suffered a traumatic brain injury and quickly crowdfunded nearly $200,000, aided by conservative politicians and media outlets who turned Ngo into a cause célèbre. Senator Ted Cruz called for a federal criminal investigation of Portland’s mayor on Ngo’s behalf. Fox News ratcheted up their alarmist coverage of Antifa. With Ngo’s help, they painted American antifascists as a “criminal cartel.” On the network, Ngo voiced his support of Donald Trump’s call to designate Antifa an “organization of terror.”
Rather than give up his spot in the limelight following the Patriot Prayer revelations, Ngo wrote a rambling op-ed in Spectator USA, outlining how the mainstream media sought to crush him through a coordinated disinformation campaign. “I am despised by left-wing journalists, so my reputation must be damaged,” Ngo wrote. Later in the same piece, he compared himself to the Covington schoolboys—a reference to a group of MAGA-hat-wearing teenagers who went viral for jeering at Native American activists in Washington, DC, earlier this year—arguing that “[w]hen people who are perceived to be right-wing smile, it’s often taken as sinister evidence.”
Ngo continues to double down on his claims of innocence. In response to my request for comment, Ngo rejects the Mercury’s claims, even though the video footage makes clear that Ngo was in the presence of Patriot Prayer members as they discussed the attack.
“I did not witness or hear the people on the public street plan an attack,” he writes. “Neither did the antifa informant at the time, who was there speaking with people, according to his interview on the Portland Mercury blog. There were three other journalists there with cameras and they did not report seeing or hearing the planning of a criminal act.” Instead, Ngo says that he was the “victim of multiple unprovoked assaults that day by masked people associated with antifa.” (A reference to being sprayed with bear repellant.) Meanwhile, the footage has been deemed reliable enough to use against Patriot Prayer in court, as some members of the group are facing felony riot charges after an attack on Antifa activists at Cider Riot, a bar in Portland, on May Day this year.
It appeared that Ngo had found the secret to success in today’s conservative media world. What the right-wing outrage machine demanded was an endless stream of content portraying leftists as the real totalitarians. The revelation of Ngo’s links to the far right may have cost him his relationship with Quillette—although both he and Lehmann insist his departure happened a week prior to the slew of bad press—but it’s not clear his career in media is over, and his rise leaves a template for other right-wing provocateurs to follow.
Antifa activists and journalists in Portland, as well as a number of others who brushed shoulders with Ngo back in his early days as a graduate student at Portland State University (PSU), have been monitoring Ngo’s activities both in person and on social media for years now. Through consultations with a number of individuals who either knew Ngo in his PSU years or have been tracking his movements during protests in Portland, a detailed timeline of Ngo’s career emerges, demonstrating how his life in Portland has in many ways laid the foundation for his grift as a right-wing anti-antifascist propagandist. Ngo seized upon trends in conservative media for his own gain—first latching on to its “clash of civilizations” approach to Islam in the Western world, then to the American right’s unhealthy obsession with “free speech” on campus, and, finally, to its fear-mongering about the left. A close examination of Ngo’s work during these years also sheds light on how the far right has become more sophisticated at feeding its noxious talking points into mainstream conservatism.
NGO LACKS a traditional reporting background, but in many ways he is ideally suited for the demands of today’s media. “Even as it shrinks,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein in a July profile of Ngo, “the national media is reorganizing around a social media-to-cable news pipeline of daily outrage.” Ngo, with his made-for-Fox-News portfolio of video clips, is both the beneficiary and an exemplary product of this pipeline.
Ngo’s status as the child of Vietnamese immigrants, his identity as a gay man, and his roots in the New Atheist community all contribute to his appeal to today’s new right. The very fact that this seems like an unlikely background for a right-wing activist helps legitimize the push for a reactionary and Western chauvinist agenda by giving the right’s platform a veneer of openness to critical thinking, and of plausible deniability with respect to allegations of bigotry. This has been demonstrated, too, in the recent prominence of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, who leveraged his identity as a gay man to amplify virulently Islamophobic talking points, as well as lesser-known individuals, such as the far-right blog Gateway Pundit’s first White House correspondent, Lucian Wintrich, who is also gay. (Wintrich, who was behind the infamous “Twinks for Trump” photography exhibit in New York City in October 2016, was allegedly fired from the Gateway Pundit for appearing on a white nationalist’s podcast. As with Ngo, the publication claimed Wintrich was already on his way out, and that news of his departure was pure coincidence.)
Ngo began building his career trolling the libs while affiliated with the Center for Inquiry (CFI), an international nonprofit organization “dedicated to defending science and critical thinking in examining religion.” Posts by Ngo on Reddit and Facebook indicate that he first started volunteering for CFI in 2013, when he offered to take photos at the CFI Portland branch’s events.
Although CFI, which is headquartered in Amherst, New York, has a number of distinct branches and has served as a home for a diverse array of atheists and secular humanists, some of its individual outposts take on their own distinct political flavor. During Ngo’s time at CFI Portland, many of its main members, including Ngo, began to take an approach to secularism that emphasized the supposed incompatability of Islam with Western liberal modernity.
Even prior to his affiliation with CFI, posts from Ngo prior to 2016 on both Twitter and Reddit capture a young man who was active in subreddits like /r/atheism and who expressed extreme anger at organized religion. “Islam needs to be neutered like Christianity,” replied Ngo on a post from 2013 about a Daily Mail article about a man chopping off his wife’s finger in order to stop her from studying for her degree. “Bible belt trash,” read another comment, responding to an Imgur post that detailed how to build a swimming pool out of hay. In 2015, Ngo accused Hend Amry, a prominent Muslim Twitter personality, of being an “Islamosupremacist fascist” in a series of tweets. In response to my request for comment, Ngo acknowledges that these now-deleted tweets contained “inflammatory language.” He claims that he attempted to apologize to Amry, but that she blocked him.
Three years later, Ngo would describe his earlier views on religion as harsh. In an interview with the Skeptical Inquirer, Ngo noted that his earlier life as a skeptic was one in which he was “quite dogmatic about his anti-religion ideas.” He confirms this now. “There was a period in my life in which I was involved in the secular community and was critical of all religions,” he writes. “The social media posts you found from years ago represented my simplistic views at the time but no longer represent my current beliefs.” Still, these simplistic anti-religious viewpoints would make it into his more mainstream work.
Ngo’s views on religion may have evolved by the time he started at PSU as a graduate student in 2015, but he would soon demonstrate that he was not one to shy away from controversy. Ngo’s work needling campus leftists would eventually take two forms: he would continue to nurture his connection to Portland CFI by joining the campus’s “humanist” CFI-affiliated advocacy group, known as Freethinkers of PSU; and he would become involved with the main student newspaper, The Vanguard, where he worked as a multimedia editor.
Though some of Ngo’s pieces at The Vanguard consisted of actual reporting, others were clearly designed to troll. In one 2016 piece, Ngo wrote about his experience donning a hijab (complete with a low-resolution selfie) for a few minutes, and the sense of oppression that supposedly came with it. Another article from spring 2017, a few weeks prior to Ngo’s departure from the paper, provided a platform for a local white nationalist and white supremacist, known only as “Herrenvolk” (German for “master race”), to advocate for racial separatism.
But perhaps the most public platform for Ngo and his fellow travelers on campus was Freethinkers, a student organization devoted to “free speech” that worked closely with the controversial PSU professor Peter Boghossian. (Most recently, Boghossian has made a name for himself by submitting fake journal articles—one of which consisted of text pulled from Mein Kampf—in order to embarrass peer-reviewed gender and sexuality journals.) During Ngo’s first few years at PSU, the Freethinkers started to shift rightward. In January 2017, the group brought Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent Gamergate apologist, and David Rubin, a far-right YouTuber, to the university to discuss “campus thought police.” Ngo introduced the panel.
Beginning in spring 2017, Ngo’s efforts to frame himself as a dissident right-wing journalist took off—thanks, in no small part, to Breitbart. That April, Ngo tweeted a short video from an interfaith discussion panel at PSU. In the video viewers see one student on the panel responding to a question about what Quranic law says about non-believers in Muslim nations. The student’s response seem to imply non-believers would face violence, or even death, in countries overseen by Quranic law. According to the student, the presence of non-believers would only be “considered a crime” in a country where Quranic law was in effect, in which case these individuals would be “given the liberty to leave the country.” “I am not going to sugarcoat it,” the student adds. While salacious, Ngo’s video conveniently ignored later efforts to counter the student’s statement—including one from a fellow panelist.
One day after Ngo—at this point still an obscure college journalist—tweeted the video, Breitbart pushed out its own screed. “WATCH: MUSLIM STUDENT CLAIMS THAT NON-BELIEVERS WILL BE KILLED IN ISLAMIC COUNTRIES,” screamed the headline. The video, as Portland-based journalist Jason Wilson would explain later in the Guardian, was almost tailor-made for Breitbart, which thrived off of “on-campus exposés of PC or identity politics, served up to inflame its rightwing populist and ‘alt-right’ readers.”
Ngo leaned into the controversy. Not long after Breitbart’s coverage thrust the story into the heart of the right-wing outrage machine, The Vanguard sacked Ngo, citing “ongoing breaches in trust and actions that were counterintuitive to the [paper’s] mission and editorial expectations.” Ngo, for his part, took to the pages of the National Review to deride the paper in an op-ed entitled “Fired for Reporting the Truth,” in which he described his forced departure as baffling and distressing. “I was disinclined to sugarcoat the truth,” he noted, regarding his decision to publish the video. “I just couldn’t have imagined it would cost me so dearly.”
The decision to fire Ngo wasn’t made overnight. Mike Bivins, a Portland-based reporter who was working at one of PSU’s other student publications, says his sense was that “they had wanted him gone long before that.” Regardless of the exact motivation for his firing, PSU quickly became a punching bag for the far-right media. A Breitbart article detailing Ngo’s departure framed him as a dissident who was only booted from the paper because his tweet captured the far-right website’s attention. The lesson for Ngo was clear: getting the right-wing outrage machine’s attention could be a game-changer for his career. He even expressed a desire to go on Tucker Carlson to sing his song of oppression during a Reddit AMA on the alt-right subreddit /r/TheDonald, which has since been quarantined for numerous threats of violence against public figures.
Shortly thereafter, Ngo began an outreach internship at CFI, which offered a modest stipend. Ngo’s pseudo-liberal Islamophobia mirrored that of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other New Atheist bigwigs, who had long portrayed Islam as a threat to Western civilization. But he opposed the broader trend in some more left-leaning humanistic circles, including at CFI, which emphasized intersectionality and diversity as tenets that ought to be central to any secular humanist worldview.
Ngo used CFI as a way not only to frame himself as a dissident against left-wing tyranny, but also to build connections throughout the secularist world. He traveled frequently: During a 2017 event at Stanford, Ngo connected with anti-Islamic activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali; former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani; and Faisal Saeed al Mutar and Melissa Chen, the founders of Ideas Without Borders—a secularist nonprofit advocacy group supported by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, among others. Ngo’s later work on “no-go zones” may have been influenced by this crowd.
A few months later, Ngo began writing for a number of right-wing publications, including the American Spectator, Quillette, and the Wall Street Journal opinion page, as well as attending popular New Atheist events like Mythcon—an annual conference that has included speakers with ties to the alt-right, such as YouTuber Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad). In early 2018, he captured the attention of the right-wing outrage machine once again when he claimed that the Freethinkers of PSU’s event with James Damore—the former Google engineer fired for circulating a sexist, anti-diversity screed in the workplace—was being threatened by violent, far-left forces lurking throughout Portland. Fox News got in on the fun, claiming—as the Portland-based alt-weekly Willamette Week noted in their coverage of the event—that “Antifa would ‘target’ the event.” At the time, Rose City Antifa told the Guardian that “no antifascist counterprotest was ever planned.” But Ngo didn’t let the truth get in the way of branding. At The College Fix, a conservative website that serves as a platform for student reporters, Ngo described the fact that the event took place without major demonstrations as a major win for “free speech.”
Despite the lack of violence, the event provided Ngo with a Wall Street Journal byline decrying the tyranny of campus leftists. Once again, reasonable pushback against an offensive campus speaker had been spun into a national news story meant to sound the alarm a manufactured free speech crisis.
ALTHOUGH NGO started tracking clashes between far-right and far-left protesters regularly after his departure from The Vanguard in the spring of 2017, Portland-based multimedia journalist Cory Elia notes that his videography work ramped up following the Occupy ICE protests, which kicked off in Portland on June 17th, 2018. It was, as BuzzFeed observed, “Ngo’s videos of angry leftists, along with his status as a local” that “got him back on Fox News” in the fall of 2018. In October, during his segment on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Ngo laid into Antifa for the grave sin of blocking traffic. Over the course of the next year, for nearly every one of Ngo’s confrontations with antifascist activists, there was a corresponding Fox News segment on the imminent danger posed by far-left activists.
By the time May Day protests rocked Portland on May 1st, 2019, Ngo had cemented his status as either a tireless chronicler of leftist tyranny or as the preferred videographer of Portland’s neo-fascist contingent, depending on your point of view. Two days after being allegedly punched in the stomach and sprayed with bear mace at the same event, Ngo appeared on Carlson’s show to call May Day a “celebration of Marxism, Communism, and political violence.” 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. Fox and others used his content to warn about the dangers of leftist tyranny—all while charging that white supremacy is “actually not a real problem in America,” as Carlson said last month.
But then, recent footage taken and made available by “Ben,” a pseudonymous Navy veteran who has been documenting Patriot Prayer activities from the inside, laid bare Ngo’s relationship with Portland’s far-right agitators. It also demonstrated how far-right videographers manipulate reality for their own ends. According to “Ben’s” footage, which was made available on YouTube in July, Ngo began his day amid a crowd of Patriot Prayer protesters. The footage makes clear that Patriot Prayer and the other far-right cronies affiliated with them were bent on a violent confrontation from the get-go—and that Ngo, who was supposedly tailing them in his capacity as a reporter, did nothing to shed light on their actions. In one video, taken a few blocks away from the well-known Antifa hangout Cider Riot, Ngo stands by calmly as Patriot Prayer members discuss plans for violence. Ngo’s camera only starts rolling when Patriot Prayer reaches Cider Riot, zeroing in on antifascists.
As the Mercury’s investigation and conversations with journalists in Portland demonstrate, Ngo’s selective reporting on Cider Riot is not an anomaly. Ngo’s videos often depict Patriot Prayer as victims rather than instigators. (Ngo denies this framing to me, however, noting that his “video recordings don’t depict any particular side as victims. I record interesting events happening in front of me on my mobile phone.”) He’s even defended them against accusations that they’re a white nationalist group, posting on Twitter in October 2018, for instance, that this supposed misrepresentation was a result of local journalists lacking “experience interfacing with conservatives so they only know caricatures.”
“The entire time Occupy ICE happened [in Portland] he only showed up when Patriot Prayer or those groups showed up,” notes Elia, the Portland-based multimedia journalist. During another march, Elia says he witnessed a conversation between Patriot Prayer organizer Haley Adams and Ngo, where the latter implied Ngo was leaving the rally with the fascist group.
“He is THE videographer for [Patriot Prayer],” Elia says. “There are a few others, but he has the crowd.”
Even prior to his recent bout of Fox News-instigated fame, Ngo’s reporting has overlooked the far-right tendencies of various subjects in favor of a straightforward victimization narrative. A video created by Ngo for The Vanguard, entitled “Traitors: The Minorities Who Support Donald Trump,” tells the story of supposedly oppressed Trump supporters on campus who were either non-white or LGBTQ. One of the video’s subjects, Tylor Phelps—who introduces himself as a “gay conservative”—was and continues to be, according to his social media presence, an outright white nationalist. Although Ngo would later tell BuzzFeed that “[h]e was unaware of . . . Phelps’s views at the time he featured them in his reporting,” Phelps had for years been sharing links to articles about the trials facing white men published on sites such as VDare, a white nationalist and virulently anti-immigrant website, and the far-right website Taki’s Magazine. (The latter has featured the infamous white nationalist Richard Spencer, who worked there as an editor prior to starting his own white nationalist website, Alternative Right, in 2010.) Furthermore, in 2017, Phelps posted a photo on Facebook of himself standing next to Jared Taylor, the head of the white supremacist think tank and publication American Renaissance. Ngo would have been privy to all of this information: according to Facebook screenshots provided by a source who knew of Ngo from before his PSU days, Phelps has also been a member of Freethinkers of PSU’s Facebook page since early 2017, and Ngo confirms that he added Phelps himself, though he clarifies to me that “he added every one who requested access to the page.”
In a Facebook post from July 2017, Phelps shared a story written by Ngo (who he described as a “friend”) which focused on yet another far-right extremist who Ngo covered as if she were a run-of-the-mill conservative. The subject of the article, Edie Dixon, is a trans woman and a member of Patriot Prayer. Although Dixon’s far-right beliefs were already clear, her various social media accounts demonstrate that she has become increasingly open about her specific affinity for neo-Nazism over the past year. At one point she even bragged on Facebook about trying to join the white nationalist organization Identity Evropa. (The organization has since rebranded itself as the American Identity Movement, likely in an effort to distance itself from its role in the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville, Virginia.)
For Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media that has fed off of Ngo’s antagonistic content, these connections to violent extremists are incidental. What matters to them is nurturing fear—fear of the other, fear of the left, fear of the unknown. As Rick Perlstein wrote in The Baffler in 2012, these terrors do not need to be tethered to anything real:
The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.
In other words, this is all a cynical and dangerous grift. In the service of this grift, brushing shoulders with the far right—or even embracing them—is fine, so long as plausible deniability is retained. And in the event that it becomes impossible to deny, well, what’s one name scratched off Quillette’s masthead?
In many respects, Ngo is undergoing the same trials as many right-wing agitators before him. Perhaps the most prominent example is Yiannopoulos, whose career began to collapse after BuzzFeed reported on footage of him singing “America the Beautiful” amidst an enamored crowd of white nationalists cheering him on with Sieg Heils. (Even this brazen act of racist provocation wasn’t enough to sink him on the right—it was his endorsement of pedophilia that ultimately did him in.) This week, Vice News reported that Yiannopoulos is completely broke and cut off from his audience, thanks to an effective campaign to get social media platforms to ban him. Whether Ngo will suffer a similar fate remains unclear. But what his story so far repeatedly demonstrates is his dependence on institutions eager to offer him a platform—and once they’re finished churning through him, they’ll find another grifter to nurture.
Hannah Gais is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Splinter and The New Republic, and she is a frequent contributor to The Baffler.