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.