I had the unusual experience of reading “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy” over the past couple of weeks, unusual insofar as my mere act of reading it drew hysteria from some of my Wikipedia-reading comrades on the left, and insofar as the book, while ostensibly an alarm bell about antifa in the United States, ate its own argument before my eyes then left me feeling tranquil and complacent.
Let it be said that Ngo can string together a sentence, despite a high amount of typos (I must have spotted 12 or 15) for a major-press hardback. And despite a couple of editorial lapses wherein he repeats the same information at length for no good reason, Ngo has the salty, high blood-pressurized stylings of an addictive writer. But like salt, “Unmasked” is of questionable nutritional value, and should probably exit your system in a hurry…
The premise: antifa (anti-fascism) is a threat to U.S. democracy. The angle: antifa is not merely an anti-fascist sentiment or set thereof, but an organized group of radicals intent upon using violence to overthrow our government. The method: a perpetually forked and unintegrated mishmash of news reporting and opinion-editorial, one of which should have been favored over the other, as the reporting reads like unsorted lists of facts and the opinions are simplistic, repetitive, and dry.
Ngo makes his case against antifa on two main levels. The first is by citing cases, instances, and events wherein antifa used violence against property or other human beings to impose its agenda. The second is by citing instances in which antifa bears an organizational structure, complete with meetings, handbooks, trainings, hierarchies, and agendas. This second one is important because, according to Ngo, the mainstream media downplays and even erases the notion that antifa is anything other than a noble idea (again: anti-fascism). Note: This mainstream media angle is a commonplace trope among the right, which complains about its side getting no attention despite its news organizations always being aggressively popular.
In any case, Ngo’s citations of antifa violence and organization backfire due to their basic rarity; in other words, such cases seem by Ngo’s own admission to be the exception rather than the rule. Likewise, Ngo keeps stating how antifa is growing and spreading while only producing atomized examples of “it” existing in organized form. In the meantime, he cannot hide from the plain fact (supported by innumerable U.S. scholars and law enforcement personnel) that antifa are (is?) far less violent than white supremacists, and tend by and large to focus their violence toward property rather than people — to the point where “they’ve” scarcely killed anyone. So this leaves Ngo bending over backwards trying to depict a growing threat while hinging his entire argument on a few scattered, random-seeming examples. If antifa’s numbers are growing yet its mark remains vague, then forgive me, but what in God’s name are we supposed to worry about?
Worse yet is Ngo’s failure to contextualize antifa within recent U.S. politics. In Ngo’s vision, President Donald Trump’s presidency was unexceptional, merely business as usual, scarcely worthy of a nod or a mention. Indeed, the Trump in Ngo’s book is not unlike the Trump of QAnon — just a grounded professional going about his job; a well-intentioned bureaucrat tending to a stable, ordinary populace.
Never mind the fact that Trump’s America was in a near-constant state of hysteria, owed in no small part to the president’s proud and open fanning of white supremacy.
But white supremacy’s a footnote within Ngo’s landscape, which leaves him hopping on one foot, telling half a story — a story of a bunch of anti-fascists who are simply fighting…as opposed to fighting, you know, fascists!
In fact, reading “Unmasked” is not unlike reading a half-cocked biography of Batman, one wherein the author breathlessly tries to warn the reader that Batman is crazy, Batman is dangerous, Batman’s governed by questionable intentions, Batman operates outside the system, and Batman is really a person underneath that mask — without any analysis whatsoever as to who or what Batman is battling, let alone the prevailing conditions in Gotham City.
This sin of omission is made all the more inane when Ngo traces antifa to its European origins, ones wherein it arose…to battle Nazis! Hey, Andy! Why do you think antifa has become so popular here?
Nope, the question never crosses Ngo’s mind, at least not enough to gain any meaningful traction. When he “reports” on the origins of Black Lives Matter, he coldly highlights the criminal histories of unarmed Black people who were killed by police, overlooking the waters in which they swam — i.e., overlooking the documented fact that U.S. law enforcement is disproportionately more violent and threatening toward Black and brown people than it is toward white people. The revolting implication is that these murdered Black people were common criminals who got what they had coming to them. By the same standard, in “Unmasked,” Ngo’s antifa operates in a vacuum, showing up and making trouble for no good goddamn reason, expressing grievances that can only be wholly unwarranted given how great America is.
About that: Since Ngo can’t argue against antifa on their (its?) own merits or on the axis of their/its own values, he’s left with making base presumptions about his readers’ default sympathy settings. In other words, Ngo reports on violence against police officers, stores, and government buildings and presumes the reader will be horrified due to an ingrained soft spot for law enforcement, capitalism, and the state.
But those ships have sailed, Andy. The left isn’t having it. Not after Trump, not after COVID. Violence or no violence, a lot of us simply believe that things are broken. (Note: The author of this review does not condone violence.)
Ngo’s failure of persuasion hits an absolute low near the book’s end, when he tries to put a chill in the reader’s blood by reporting that antifa not only uses violence to meet its ends, but also — gasp! — the levers of the state. In other words, they participate in fair and legal elections! They align with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez! They use propaganda and strategic messaging to manipulate people into voting for their candidates!
Forgive me but…isn’t that called…politics? For a book that’s subtitle evokes a “Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy,” it’s certainly a little quaint to see the author so concerned about the “enemy” utilizing the legal machinations of democracy.
Ngo does better in his afterword, where he ties his right-leaning bias to his Vietnamese parents’ origins in a country suffering under the rule of violent socialism. There he also contextualizes his own love for America and its freedoms. And he even makes room to express his own doubts about the American government while tranquilly admitting to an understanding of how others might arrive at antifa sentiments.
That’s a book I would have liked to have read: measured, grounded, calm, humanizing, open. Maybe that book would have better sensitized me to antifa’s potential flaws and dangers. In any case, at least it would have allowed me to make up my own mind. The irony of “Unmasked,” as written, is that by forcing its position down readers’ throats, it is guilty of the same authoritarianism that it claims to fear.