Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a fourth-generation military man, deployed twice to Afghanistan. The second time, as a 22-year-old Marine corporal in 2010, he led an eight-man infantry team into combat. Two of his men were wounded by enemy sniper fire, and one of his best buddies later died in combat.
Now President Trump says Thomas is an enemy of the American people.
Thomas, a Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, was so labeled, along with everybody else in the media, by the commander in chief on Friday. “The FAKE NEWS media,” Trump tweeted, “is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
I asked my colleague, who went to Georgetown University on the G.I. Bill before joining the Post two years ago, how it felt to be called an enemy of the country he volunteered to serve in combat.
“It’s alarming, like a bunch of other things these days,” Thomas said. “It also feels like bait.”
And Thomas isn’t taking the bait. Like the rest of us, he’s keeping his head down and doing his job.
Trump’s Stalinist labeling of the media is his latest attempt to delegitimize the structures of civil society, following similar attacks on the courts and the intelligence community. We in the press are an easy mark because we’re already held in low esteem. In this case, the charge, using the universal language of autocrats, probably shouldn’t be dignified with a refutation: To be forced to make the case that a free press isn’t the enemy of a free people is to fight on Trump’s terms.
Instead, allow me to introduce you to the backgrounds of some of my colleagues who Trump would have you believe are enemies of the American people. I would argue that they are the American people. Yes, they went to college, they live in the Washington area, and they earn good wages; that earns them the “elite” epithet. But they hail from all corners of this country, from farms and small towns, the children of immigrants and factory workers, preachers and teachers.
Lori Montgomery, the Post’s deputy national editor, grew up on her family’s dairy farm in western Pennsylvania. Lori, who spent part of her youth stacking hay and shooting a .22, went to Northwestern to study journalism; her brother still runs the farm.
Jose DelReal, one of the Post’s political reporters, was born in Merced, California, to immigrants from Mexico who were both farmhands. The family moved to Anchorage, where Jose’s mother worked as a maid and his father as a cook and dishwasher. Jobs and scholarships got Jose through Harvard University.
Dan Balz, the Post’s chief correspondent, comes from Freeport, Illinois, one of the cities of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. His father sold batteries. Dan went to the University of Illinois and served for three years in the military.
Political reporter Jenna Johnson grew up in Nebraska, where she attended the University of Nebraska; she got an internship with the Post and has never left. Her parents run the weekly newspaper in the small town in eastern Iowa where they now live. Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s political editor, grew up in Onancock, a town of 1,200 on the rural Eastern Shore of Virginia. For the first four years of his life there, the family home had no heat.
The mother of Supreme Court reporter Bob Barnes died when he was 10, and his dad, a World War II vet who didn’t finish high school, worked as a telephone lineman, climbing poles and installing phones. Bob went from Pensacola, Florida, public schools to the University of Florida – where another future Post editor and writer, David Finkel, got through school working at Pizza Hut and Amoco.
National correspondent Mary Jordan grew up on Cleveland’s West Side, her dad a pipe fitter and her mother a maid, both Irish immigrants. Another national reporter, Stephanie McCrummen, whose grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher, was reared by a mother who worked for Bell South in Birmingham, Alabama. And Dan Eggen, a political editor, is the son of a Lutheran minister from small-town Minnesota.
If space allowed, I could go on. My colleagues don’t volunteer these stories ordinarily, for the same reason I don’t drone on about my Civil War ancestry, or about how I was reared by a single mother, a schoolteacher, and worked my way through college. Everybody in the newsroom – everybody in America – has an American story.
Such stories are so commonplace as to be unremarkable – or at least they seemed unremarkable until Trump declared some of us enemies of the American people. So let’s pause to remember: We are all the American people. And we all love our country.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.