The past year (and perhaps the next few years to come) will forever be marked by the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. But just as importantly in the United States, civil unrest and widespread radicalization played a key part in shaping the history of 2020. 

The protests and riots that followed both the murder of George Floyd and the removal of Donald Trump from the White House were to many a means of practicing a constitutional right in peace. But for some, it was an opportunity to sew chaos into the fabric of American society.

The small groups of radical leftsist and right-wingers alike that wreaked havoc during what should have been peaceful protests received all of the media attention, and were always the main topic of conversation. 

This desire to talk about the implications of dangerous radical speech, coupled with the function of social media as a massive platform for anybody to spread their ideas, leads to moments of controversy when public figures with lots of people listening say dangerous things. 

Winston Marshall Praises Fascist Writer Andy Ngo

Mumford & Sons guitarist and banjo player Winston Marshall has received harsh criticism after he praised fascist writer Andy Ngo on his new book in a since-deleted tweet.

“Congratulations @MrAndyNgo,” wrote Marshall. “Finally had time to read your important book. You’re a brave man.”

Ngo, a far-right journalist and social media personality who has made a name for himself by sympathizing with radical fascist groups like the Proud Boys, has returned to the forefront of mainstream media with his new book Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy.

According to a Los Angeles Times review, Ngo’s new book sugarcoats the fascist group the Proud Boys by calling it a “pro-Trump fraternity,” downplays the murders of Heather Heyer (killed by a car plowing into a group of counter-protestors at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017) and Trayvon Martin (killed by George Zimmerman in 2012), and defends the deadly riot that occurred on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021.

While these stances taken by Ngo may seem absurd to many people, they are dangerous statements to be thrown around by a person with a large following. because they may seem completely agreeable to others. This is disconcerting considering events such as the murders of Heather Heyer and Trayvon Martin as well as the storming of capitol hill. 

Backlash Against Mumford & Sons’ Winston Marshall

The backlash against Winston Marshall for applauding Ngo was swift and intense, as disgruntled Mumford & Sons fans and fellow bands took to social media and expressed their disgust at the multi-instrumentalist’s support of the fascist writer.

“This is so damn disappointing and really reinforces all the bad stereotypes about what it means when you hear ‘the sound of banjos.’ Supporting fascism ain’t a good look,” said one Twitter user.

“A dumbfounding endorsement of fascism,” said another. “Shame, I really liked that one song a while ago.”

Popular indie rock band Portugal. The Man quoted Marshall’s tweet with the caption “This fuckin dweeb.” The band also retweeted another tweet calling out Marshall that read “I mean he plays a banjo… wonder if he realizes it was invented in Africa?”

Should Mumford & Sons Part Ways With Marshall?

This is not the first time Mumford & Sons have landed themselves in hot water for associating with known radical right-wingers. In 2018, the band responded to backlash for posing for a photograph with Jordan Peterson, a conservative academic known for his controversial opinions on gender identity.

Then too, it was Marshall who stepped forward in support of Peterson, saying he was interested in Peterson’s work in psychology. If Marshall has been pushing the limits of who he publicly endorses, his tweet about Ngo seems to be the final straw.

Among the firestorm of tweets aimed at Marshall for his comments, several called for Mumford & Sons to part ways with him for good.

“Your banjo player is a fascist. What do you think this is going to do to your public image? You guys screwed up. Fire the fascist,” read one tweet.

“Unless you kick @winstonmarshall out of the band, I’m done with y’all,” said a fan on the band’s Instagram.

 Though it may be discouraging to see a popular public figure like Marshall praise the peddlers of hateful ideas, it is just as encouraging to see how many people are willing to condemn the actions of a celebrity they may have previously supported.  

Celebrities, Controversial Opinions, and Cancel Culture

The “cancellation” of celebrities who support controversial ideas has been  rampant in the past year, with Chris Pratt’s support of a supposedly anti-LGBTQ+ church to the intense public scrutiny in response to Lana Del Rey and her selfish, anti-feminist lyrics.Instances like Chris Pratt’s religious affiliations, Lana Del Rey’s lyrics and defensive comments, and more specifically the newest instance of Winston Marshall’s support of fascist writings raise interesting questions about the ways in which fascism bleeds into popular culture

Fascism and Popular Culture: Disruption and Normalization

Alexander Reid Ross, author of the 2017 book Against the Fascist Creep, may have the answers. In an interview for Pacific Standard Magazine, Ross posits that fascists tend to sneak into popular culture and media by co-opting more liberal and progressive means of spreading ideologies and using them for fascists messages. Ross explains how fascism’s creep into the mainstream is carried out,  in large part, by disruption.

In the interview, Ross highlights examples of notable far-right figures like conservative speaker/writer Milo Yiannopoulos and former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer making public appearances at large scale events like the MTV Video Music Awards and the Emmys, respectively.

“The first thing these appearances accomplish is normalization,” says Ross. “These guys who have extreme views are pulled up into the limelight and generally it appears they are being accepted. On the other hand, it’s normalization insofar as perhaps their character or persona becomes more moderate as they are accepted and introduced through functioning institutions.

But if you look at the emergence of fascism and the development of fascism in its original form, one of the interesting things that you see in cultural avenues is that they are often primarily interested in disruption.” says Ross.

Over the years, award show events like the MTV Video Music Awards and the Emmys have sometimes operated as  platforms for winning artists to spread their generally liberal points of view. So, when people like Yiannopoulos and Spicer make appearances at such events and spread their contrasting conservative points of view, they act as disruptors spreading fascist ideology, as posited by Ross’s theories. 

Rather than these ideas being  shut down at the source, they are allowed to flow and spread into the mainstream for public discussion. . Ross argues that this is a matter of class; we assume anybody with access to a platform like the Emmys must be an important person so we are more likely to listen and even give their words the weightage they might not deserve.

“Once someone is as prominent and powerful as a media representative for the president, they assume a class and a power that is inevitable. So one might think, ‘Well, we’re going to have to deal with these people anyway, this is the new normal.’” says Ross.

Through the use of progressive methods of spreading ideology to disrupt the mainstream, radical right-wing and fascist philosophies have been able to work their way into pop culture and set up a new kind of disruption. 

This kind of fascist disruption is what occurred with Winston Marshall, an established celebrity who made a startling pro-fascist comment and leapt to the top of Twitter’s most trending topics. As a musician and as someone who is not known as a radical right-winger or controversial conservative politician, Marshall’s stardom allows him a novel kind of attention that in turn generates controversy. 

Social media and the consistent prominence of pop culture as a conversation topic essentially gives all celebrities a massive public platform.  Millions of people are ready and willing to see what celebrities have to say and spread it around like breaking news.  

 Past public appearances by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos and Sean Spicer lay the groundwork for fascist ideas to  bleed into the mainstream and, to some extent, normalize celebrities spouting radical ideas.   

Winston Marshall’s comment may be the latest to spark controversy over public endorsement of fascist ideas, but it is not likely to be the last. 

The seamless meshing of pop culture and fascism have created an environment where we keep refreshing our social media pages with bated breath, waiting to see which  celebrity that we’ve granted a a virtual soapbox to is actually a fascist supporter.