Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump often speaks as though he'd gladly punch a journalist if he could get away with it. And hell, maybe he could -- in the eyes of his supporters, at least.
On Monday, a Secret Service agent was filmed choke-slamming a photographer at a Trump campaign rally in Radford, Virginia. Online, many were quick to claim that Christopher Morris, a photojournalist for Time magazine, was asking for it.
With much of Trump's campaign revolving around his near-constant demonization of reporters, restrictions on the media and appeals to callous authoritarianism, perhaps this response shouldn't be surprising. But it reflects an environment in which people feel comfortable saying it's OK to use physical violence -- and perhaps even violate someone's rights -- to put those who would challenge authority in their place.
Headlines like this one at Breitbart, which seized on an earlier and incomplete version of the video, certainly didn't engender any sympathy for Morris:
Later video would show that the agent grabbed Morris around the neck and threw him on the ground first. Morris then got up and put a hand to the agent's throat, "in order to demonstrate the choke hold he had just experienced," according to a statement from Time.
This tweet, which appeared to show Morris launching an obscenity at the agent before the altercation got physical, was similarly used to justify the agent's behavior:
But cursing at a member of law enforcement is a constitutionally protected activity. Sure, doing so might be unwise, especially given that law enforcement officers routinely bend the law to punish behavior that they see as insufficiently submissive to their authority. But that shouldn't be an excuse. Legally speaking, being a jerk isn't grounds for the use of physical force.
This fact apparently didn't concern the many people who emerged as apologists for the Secret Service officer's conduct.
Hundreds of people have expressed similar views on Twitter, often with more hostility.
Many have focused on a supposed "chest bump" between the two men. It remains to be seen if the Secret Service, which released a statement saying it is "aware" of the episode, will use that alleged contact as justification for the agent's escalation of force.
Regardless, this controversy is as much about the choke-slam being necessary as it is about it being justified. A similar criticism lies at the heart of many use-of-force incidents that receive public scrutiny.
Maybe the Secret Service agent could have handled the situation better, without resorting to violence. Morris certainly could have been less confrontational. But are we willing to say that disrespecting an officer of the law, especially as a journalist at a political event, is an invitation to physical assault?
According to the letter of the law, we shouldn't.
But in Trump's America, a place where many people believe freedom of the press is little more than a suggestion and protest should be suppressed by force -- and not just by police -- the answer seems less and less clear each day.