A Philosopher's Blog

Trump, Violence & Protests

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2016

Donald Trump has a talent for bringing out strong emotions in people, thus it is that some protest his rallies dressed as penises and other folks punch protestors and reporters. While Trump’s ideas have little or no philosophical merit, the situations arising at his rallies do raise interesting philosophical concerns about violence and protesting.

Some of Trump’s rallies have been marked by violence, including alleged attacks on protestors and even members of the conservative press. While Trump often seems to praise and encourage violence against protestors and even the media, the official line is that protestors should be handled by law enforcement and not attacked by Trump supporters. This official line is the correct moral line—the use of violence against non-violent protestors is not warranted, even if they are insulting, disruptive or annoying. The justification for this position is easy enough. While a political rally can be a place of heightened emotions, being a supporter of a candidate does not grant a person a special status that allows them to inflict violence on a protestor. The moral relation between the people is the same as it would be anywhere and just as merely being disruptive or even insulting does not warrant physical assault anywhere else, it does not warrant it at a political rally. This applies whether the rally is for Democrats or Republicans and regardless of the ideology of the protestor.

While there are certainly those who think that protestors (or reporters) they dislike should be punched in the mouth, such punching is not warranted in civil society. After all, while self-defense can be used justly against unwarranted physical attacks, one cannot justly claim that physical violence is warranted as defense against a protest, even if it is annoying, insulting or disrupting. This is because, to borrow from John Locke’s justification of self-defense, such protesting does not put one at risk in regards to life, liberty or property.

Naturally, a person has every right to counter protestors with words—to argue against them and perhaps even to respond to their shouts and taunts with shouts and taunts. That said, it is worth considering the possibility of fighting words—an insult so provocative that a person is warranted in responding with physical violence. This could be justified on the grounds that such an attack inflicts emotional harm that warrants a response with physical harm. This could be developed, perhaps, by considering the harms that alleged to be inflicted by hate speech. If it is accepted that words, images and such can do real harm, then there would seem to be a potential avenue leading to justifying a physical defense against a verbal offense.

The counter to this is that words, images and such are just that—they are not physical attacks and no matter how vile or provocative they are, they cannot do real harm. Or, they cannot do enough or the right sort of harm to warrant a physical defense.

It might be pointed out that harmful words and images do seem to warrant a physical response. For example, threats and non-physical bullying can be regarded as crimes that warrant action be taken against the offender. This point leads quite nicely to my next point of discussion, which is the right of Trump and any other candidate to be able to freely conduct their events and employ law enforcement to keep protestors from disrupting these events.

An immediate objection to even such a suggestion is that protestors have a right to free expression—they have every right to protest even at a private rally. This does have considerable appeal and I certainly agree that there is a right of protest that falls under a broader right of expression. It is, in fact, my support of free expression that causes me to support the seemingly ironic position that Trump and other candidates have the right to have disruptive and insulting protestors removed from private rallies by law enforcement. This is on the condition that the protestor is actually disrupting the event to a degree that it meaningfully interferes with the free expression of the candidate (or other speaker).

The reason, which is rather obvious, is that sufficiently disruptive protestors are infringing on the free speech of the candidate—they are endeavoring to drown out her voice with their own, which cannot be justified on free speech grounds. It could, however, be justified on other moral grounds (such as by using a utilitarian approach) but this matter goes way beyond the scope of this short essay. In any case, an appeal to free speech cannot justify protests that interfere with free speech.

In contrast, if a protestor protests in a manner that does not significantly interfere with the candidate’s free expression, even if the act of protest is annoying or even insulting (like wearing a provocative penis hat at a Trump rally), then the protestor’s right of free expression would warrant this expression. There is, of course, the practical matter of sorting out what degree of disruption warrants a removal of a protestor on the grounds he is violating the right of free expression of a candidate or other speaker.

While the right of free expression can be used to justify ejecting protestors, property rights can also be brought into play. If an event is being held on private property and is not open to the general public, then those in charge of the event have the right to control access. Even if the event is open to the public, those in charge have a right (or even responsibility) to act to ensure the integrity of the event. This is the same right that justifies excluding people who do not have tickets from concerts and also justifies movie theaters in removing people who insist on being excessively loud and disruptive. It is also the right that justifies having people removed from a class if they engage in behavior that makes teaching impossible, such as flipping over a desk and screaming at the professor.

This sort of property right is, like all rights, not absolute and moral arguments could be advanced that would justify protests that seem to violate property rights. For example, the terrible consequences of not protesting might warrant the protest as might the evil of what is being protested.

In light of the above discussion, Trump has the right to free expression; but protestors who do not violate this right also have the right to protest without fear of violence.


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15 Responses

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  1. Magus said, on March 15, 2016 at 12:37 am

    Brilliant commentary by Paul Watson.

    • WTP said, on March 15, 2016 at 8:46 am

      From the “otherwise” “conservative/classical liberal/libertarian-ish” Ace of Spades last night…from the 1970’s Woody Allen movie Bananas. Just a joke, of course. Of course. No connection to Trump. Of course.

      Howard Cosell: This is tremendous, Don, just tremendous. The atmosphere heavy, uncertain, overtones of ugliness. A reminder, in a way, of how it was in March of 1964 at Miami Beach when Clay met Liston for the first time and nobody was certain how it would turn out. The crowd is tense; they’ve been here since ten this morning. And… and I think I see… the door beginning to open. El Presidente may be coming out. The door opens. It’s he… it’s El Presidente waving at the crowd. A shot rings out! He turns… he runs back toward the building, trying to get in. This crowd is going wild. He’s caught in a crossfire of bullets. And down! It’s over! It’s all over for El Presidente!

      Of course as described in this video, the media and political class are by far more responsible. But it disgusts me that the comparisons of Trump==Hilter or Trump==Mussolini…I have even seen comparisons of him to Bill Clinton and Bernie Madoff…are being made on what I once considered conservative or even classical liberal sites. The arguments are as week as those I see here from Mike and similar.

      Again though, it is far more the left that is driving this justification of violence. And much of the softening up of the heads of Americans has been done in our universities and most other “educational” institutions. All the while paid for (involuntarily by definition) by taxpayers. Funding for this nonsense must be cut. They are promoting and justifying violence. There is barely a First Amendment tolerance for this but this sort of thinking should never be funded involuntarily.

      • ronster12012 said, on March 15, 2016 at 9:42 am


        I find the amount of hatred aimed at DT to be absolutely amazing….and he is the one being accused of ‘hate’….all projection by the real haters IMO. From my experience, there are no haters like the left…absolutely tribal in their hate….it blinds them.

        Just today I read that Anonymous have declared ‘total war’ on Trump


        And a so called ‘conservative’ blog is calling for protesters to carry weapons to Trump rallies and use them if needed.


        This is all truly bizarre…left and right coming together to attack a political candidate who has committed no crimes, has no blood on his hands(unlike Hillary) and isn’t bought and paid for like the rest of the candidates(perhaps except Bernie). He must be speaking some powerful truths to get everyone else against him.

        • WTP said, on March 15, 2016 at 10:13 am

          It is absolutely sickening. I hate to highlight what is going on on the right-leaning blogs and such because the media, academia, and the left (but I repeat myself) have far more responsibility in this matter, but the vitriol on those blogs is astounding. The stammering arguments, the “but-but-but” and the projection that anyone who defends Trump by any means whatsoever is some kind of Trump-bot…There’s no arguing with such. Other people make very rational statements, many prefaced with “I like/will vote for Cruz, but this anti-Trump frothing is driving me in his direction” and similar are either ignore or denounced as a sign of just what a “Trumpet” the person is. It’s kind of like the scene in Monty Pythons’ Life of Brian only in reverse…”Only a true Trumpet would pose as a Cruz supporter and denounce the anti-Trumpers!!11!!!!”. Or I’ve encountered the “In case you didn’t notice we like Cruz here so take your Trumpet elsewhere” mentality. It’s absolutely unhinged.

          • Magus said, on March 15, 2016 at 7:44 pm

            I have never seen anything like this. Seriously, my jaw has dropped so often I need surgery. I’m glad someone sees the same thing, coming from every direction.

            • WTP said, on March 16, 2016 at 1:25 pm

              Heh…don’t know if you’re following any “conservative” blogs, the ban-hammers have been activated on Ace and Patterico. Don’t follow others too closely. David Thompson is still safe but he’s a Brit and also quite even-keeled and rational. The Cruz-ish people can scream Nazi and such and provoke some Trump to backlash and out go the Trumpets and noobs. Granted, some of them were a-holes but no problem on the Cruzers saying as bad if not worse. Kinda reminds me of my short time at The Philosophy Magazine a few years back. Don’t challenge the thinking of The Thinkers. Are you or TJ seeing similar elsewhere?

            • Magus said, on March 16, 2016 at 5:53 pm

              “Are you or TJ seeing similar elsewhere?”

              Oh heck yeah. National Review has melted down. Literally fighting for classically liberal issues just to be on the opposite side of Trump. It’s beyond bizarre. Glenn Beck’s completely lost his mind. The things they’re pecking at Trump about, I look into them. They’re doing exactly the things that have turned me off from libs for decades. Picking at the smallest thing, and misrepresenting just enough so that uninformed people would never see it. Like Trump’s supposed bankruptcy. 4 businesses that he partly owns have declared bankruptcy, so this gets portrayed as Trump him self has been bankrupt 4 times. When you’re a billionaire who owns tons of properties, bankruptcy for reorganization is not uncommon. Those businesses didn’t liquidate.

              They’ve literally attacked every angle and been wrong on nearly all of them. Then when they’re proven wrong, it’s crickets. The story of the Breitbart reporter being assaulted was complete BS, watch the latest video. They jumped on that, crickets when the video came out that showed she was moved aside, but not “nearly thrown tot he ground.”

            • WTP said, on March 17, 2016 at 9:01 am

              Just to be clear, I’m pretty certain when you say ” Literally fighting for classically liberal issues” you are saying they are fighting for the kind of classic issues that liberals/leftists feed upon and not “classical liberal”, the not-quite-conservative/not-quite-libertarian Thomas Sowell/Hayek/Adam Smith-type theorist…Which is why I rarely use the word “liberal”, preferring “leftists” to define the socialist-wannabes.

              They are behaving like liberals/leftists because at their core they are no different than the leftists and such. While they advocate for less government, their path to delivering less government is more and more dependent on gaining power through government, and thus attention to themselves. If you suggest that perhaps their efforts would be better spent helping poor and struggling individuals understand the fundamentals of wealth, how to acquire it, and the responsibilities of maintaining it, that is not even on their radar screens. In fact, some expressed downright hostility to myself when I mentioned it once. If more effort was put there (and granted many churches do do this and somewhat similar but it’s too steeped in a specific religion to have a broad appeal) they would create a base with this understanding that would lead to more votes. And that’s the thing. Most/many of these bloggers/journalists are lawyers or lawyer wannabes. A lawyer’s job often depends on weeding out the 12 dumbest sheep from a population and doing a better job of convincing them to see things his way. The job pretty much breeds contempt for one’s audience.

              Now some of what I’ve said here is a bit of a stretch, but the threads are there.

        • Magus said, on March 17, 2016 at 11:45 am

          Classical liberal as in, it looks like they could now write speeches for Barrack Obama.

  2. Magus said, on March 15, 2016 at 1:31 am

    Possibly one of the best speeches in modern political history.

  3. ronster12012 said, on March 15, 2016 at 9:19 am


    “This could be developed, perhaps, by considering the harms that alleged to be inflicted by hate speech. If it is accepted that words, images and such can do real harm, then there would seem to be a potential avenue leading to justifying a physical defense against a verbal offense.”


    Why do you use terms such as hate speech?Yes, I know that it is usually used to describe statements that a leftist doesn’t like…. and is a form of rhetorical bullying and emotional manipulation and therefore an attempt to shut down free speech. So it is dishonest.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 15, 2016 at 6:21 pm

      The point was to consider a justification for physical defense against a verbal offense.

  4. WTP said, on March 15, 2016 at 9:36 am

    So ronster’s post prompted me to read this post and I managed to get through it without wincing. Though full of equivocation and such, for the most part a defense of free speech. However what was glossed over here was the right of others to hear the speaker. Much of what was written here was along the lines of In light of the above discussion, Trump has the right to free expression; but protestors (sic) who do not violate this right also have the right to protest without fear of violence. They have the right to protest without interfering with audience members’ rights to hear what the speaker is saying. When the speaker is speaking protesters should remain quiet, not shouting in such a way that, while it may not interfere with the speaker, it does annoy or distract other audience members. This includes waving banners and signs and such in a manner that does not allow other audience members to see the speaker.

    As for While Trump’s ideas have little or no philosophical merit. That statement itself in the context of what is being discussed has no business in this discussion. One could argue that Bernie Sanders’ ideas have little or no philosophical merit. Or anyone else for that matter. This is nothing more than your opinion. You have no business, as a so-called philosopher, writing off what Trump has to say in such a dismissive manner. Of course it’s your right to do so. But it’s completely irresponsible given the position in which you have been trusted in our society.

    • ronster12012 said, on March 15, 2016 at 10:03 am


      Who would be blamed if a few hundred Trump supporters caused problems at a Sanders or Clinton rally? Would Hillary or Bernie be blamed for their inflammatory rhetoric….or would the protesters themselves by virtue of being Trump supporters be blamed? No prizes for guessing how it would be played…

  5. Magus said, on March 16, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Oh and now the Left loves McCain and Romney….Just unreal.

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