What's the Best Way to Protest Trump? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our latest reader to email hello@, Robert Hochman, offers some great recommendations in response to that question—the best way to protest Trump—that don’t involve threatening free speech, which Robert defends here with passion and principle:

I’m a lawyer, but I don’t think the law of free speech is all that helpful in thinking through the delicate question of how one should either tactically or morally protest Trump. Whether he crosses the line to incitement, or merely dances on its edge, Trump is contemptible. What is legally permissible public speech is far broader than what our political culture ought to expect from candidates.

Whether Trump is aiding and abetting battery by offering to pay legal fees of his supporters who punch protestors is a nice exam question for law school. Whether he is “inciting” violence by lamenting the good ol’ days when protesters were taken out on a stretcher is something law professors and students love to argue about.

But nothing turns on the answer. And that’s because what we should cherish about our political culture is the miracle—and it really should be thought of as like a miracle—that the most powerful nation the world has ever seen removes its most powerful person from office every four or eight years through an orderly, nonviolent, democratic process. This so familiar to us that it is taken for granted.  Maybe we have become so accustomed to it that we can’t really believe that someone has come along who is threatening that norm. But if we do see it, and can recognize it, it is certainly our duty to figure out the most effective way to stop it. So the need to protest Trump is clear, whether his speech is lawful or not.

I think the comments of one of your readers, Alycee, is fundamentally off when she asserts that it is morally OK to prevent Trump from speaking even though it would not have been morally OK to prevent Obama from speaking in 2008.

To be sure, I agree with her that Trump’s racist and thuggish message is immoral while Obama’s was not. But so what? The problem that free speech exists to deal with is granting the government the power to prevent speech it considers immoral. Speech like abolitionism in the South was, by the moral standards of the authorities in charge, deeply immoral. Indeed, judging what speech is permissible and what speech is impermissible based on its perceived morality or immorality is a recipe for the most basic kind of thought control that will favor contemporary morality and halt progress.

Alycee recognized that violence is not a legitimate form of protest. And she also recognized Trump’s right to speak. But she drew a strange line when she said he had no right to be heard. It’s not his right to be heard that free speech protects, but the right of the people who want to hear him. Protesting in a way designed to prevent others from hearing a speaker, even an immoral speaker, is wrong.

It is certainly true that hate speech is not something we are bound to respect with a hearing. And nobody is ever going to make Alycee listen to Trump. That would be wrong. But it is equally wrong for her to prevent those who want to hear Trump from listening to him. I think it’s morally wrong, even though Trump is uttering immoral and noxious ideas. And it is morally wrong to prevent those who want to listen to Trump from hearing him because I (or Alycee or a group of protestors or the government) do not get to decide what is and is not the legitimate range of moral discussion any more than slaveholders in the South should have had that power.

I hasten to add that it is tactically foolish to prevent Trump supporters from hearing from what Trump wants to say. It confirms every prejudice they have about Trump opponents: that they are oppressive troublemakers who are out to force the country to accept their PC view of the world.

I think both prudence and fundamental moral principles suggest other methods to “delegitimize” Trump’s speech without disrupting it. Anti-Trump protestors should endeavor to find ways to protest without interfering at all in the conduct of his rallies: fill as much of the arena as possible and post anti-Trump signs and sit silently reducing the enthusiasm of the crowd overall; coordinated walkouts mid speech in volume; coordinate turning their backs on the candidate as he speaks; I’m sure there are many more good ideas. If security seeks to remove such non-disruptive protestors, refuse to leave, in 1960s sit-in style.

Personally I think this video ad is another effective and principled tactic—using Trump’s own speech against him: