The patriotism of fighting Trump

Story highlights

  • The Democratic Party convention is taking place this week in Philadelphia
  • Eric Liu: The spirit of true patriotism was best expressed and embodied by Barack Obama

Eric Liu is founder of Citizen University and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship & American Identity Program. His books include "A Chinaman's Chance" and "The Gardens of Democracy." He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)On the day that Donald Trump made news by openly inviting Russia to intervene in the presidential election, the Democrats in Philadelphia reminded America what true patriotism is.

For months, Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan has been not just the heart of his campaign, but also the reflection of the wounded pride of his followers: in the Rust Belt, in Appalachia, among uneducated white men who feel "ripped off" by the world.
Eric Liu
Trump's brand of patriotism is strikingly, even shockingly, about decline and loss. It does not strike any of the mystic chords of memory that Lincoln touched and Reagan struck again. It does not evoke our nation's founding ideals. It is just a vision of America-as-Trump, a promise that if an unashamed swindler can become a wealthy celebrity then America must still have a chance.
Wednesday night's speakers offered a different story about patriotism. It started with Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly, who have served their country in office and in uniform, and who as citizens now are fighting to reduce the gun violence that almost took her life.
It continued with Vice President Joe Biden, who rekindled a spirit of blue-collar pride in America based not on fear or resentment or a sense of decline, but on resilience and toughness. Biden did something no other speaker had done to that point: He spoke in anger. He was not just offended or indignant about Trump's words and deeds. He was angry that this fraud and possibly even traitor would dare lay claim to middle-class loyalties.
The narrative about true patriotism rolled on with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, once a Democrat and then a Republican and now an independent, who delivered the line of the night: "I'm a New Yorker. I know a con when I see one." Bloomberg's pitch, devastatingly effective, was explicitly about putting country above party.
It continued with vice presidential pick Tim Kaine's spirit of humility and message of service before self. His pride in his son, a Marine who's just deployed to Europe, was palpable. As was his all-around corniness, which played as earnest, uncynical belief in the country.
But ultimately, the spirit of true patriotism was best expressed and embodied, as it was 12 years ago at this convention, by Barack Obama. "Filled with faith" in America is how he described himself. He contrasted that belief in American ingenuity and decency with the pessimism and zero-sum fearfulness that Trump feeds on. He contrasted the "We" of "We the People" with Trump's "I alone." He quoted Teddy Roosevelt. And he painted Hillary Clinton in these colors of patriotism properly understood.
Over a century ago, a U.S. senator from Missouri came to national prominence in a time of nativism and fear. His name was Carl Schurz. He was a German immigrant. He had been a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. When demagogues chanted "My country, right or wrong," Schurz replied with a profound twist. True patriotism, he said, means, "My country: when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right."
The United States thrives when citizens of both parties think and act this way. On Wednesday night, Americans who happen to be Democrats reminded us again how to do it.