Disrupt & Innovate

Coming Together in Times of Populist-Nationalism in the US

24th October 2019 by Sam Worthington and Mike Fox

“What is the identity of my country and who are we as a people?” is a question that has shaped America’s unique idealism across generations of immigrants. It is also a question that can be used to stoke fear and division. Racism and nativism reside close to the heart of the wave of populist-nationalism that the United States is currently confronting. While all these trends, in addition to the related sentiment of isolationism, have a long history in both US politics and in official government policy, we have rarely faced them all in combination, wielded by a President and his allies. An initiative we call The Together Project, has been at the heart of InterAction’s response to these forces that try to divide people. It draws on and reinforces our community’s solidarity to advance a more compassionate and diverse form of American identity.

Root causes, ‘retrotopianism’ and racism

America’s current wave of populist-nationalism is rooted in racial resentment and a history of grievances that is endemic to US society. As our country becomes more and more multi-ethnic and diverse, a subset of the country’s dominant majority has not seen themselves reflected in America’s emerging identity and progress. Systematic economic inequality has also led to high levels of frustration, particularly in rural areas, that feed resentment and amplify a nationalist narrative among citizens who previously had a sense of power. They now blame others, immigrants or people who do not look like them, for their economic circumstances. Populist narratives have drawn on this racial anxiety and economic frustration by promising a return to a past – remodelling it as an idealised ‘- when their supporters felt more culturally, if not economically, dominant. A past where America First was the norm. President Trump has amplified these feelings through what many see as public racism.

The optimism within (civil) society

Internationally-focused NGOs and our supporters belong to a segment of society that view the constant changing and growth of American identity with optimism.  , seeing participation by different groups in a changing society as something that makes us all stronger. We believe that different elements have contributed over generations to a shared narrative that reinforces our values and collective, yet diverse, identity. Unfortunately, the division between an open and inclusive country, and building walls and promoting exclusion, often splits down political lines. As a result, there’s not much space for nuance in the public conversation.

Reflecting as a community: The need to come Together

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, InterAction hosted our annual CEO Retreat, and – during an exercise that emphasizes honest reflection among our community – a Muslim-American leader shared their fear for themselves, their organization, and their family in the face of growing public racism. A Jewish-American colleague found common ground in sharing their emotions over having lost their grandparents during the Holocaust. The idea that we all have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with vulnerable colleagues gained immediate traction. The conversation evolved towards a shared understanding that those of us in the room, as civil society leaders, had a responsibility to look out for each other and foster a better dialogue in our country. The blend of personal backgrounds, shared values and experiences across different cultural and faith identities further inspired launching the Together Project in 2017.

Building community through trust

Whilst the initial leadership for the Together Project came from our Muslim faith-based member NGOs, it could only become a community-wide initiative due to trust among individuals and organizations across the sector, tapping into a shared safe space at InterAction. Trust and creation of safe spaces for dialogue are essential not just at the micro-, programmatic level, but also at the macro-level for society at large. These two dynamics create opportunity for agreements on how to strategically combat populist-nationalism, while not resorting to a simple adversarial or victimhood narrative, either of which can alienate potential allies. Adversarial or victimhood narratives can often feed the very social divisions wielded by populist demagogues through emphasizing division and differences, as opposed to a sense of shared, values and identity.

Creating a shared national narrative

For the United States to ultimately overcome this current populist-nationalism wave, and its associated racism, nativism, and isolationism, it will be essential to create a shared national narrative. We need an agenda of common action, mutual benefit, and agreement on values. These principles may be as simple as being kind to our neighbors and believing the dignity of all people, whether in this country or overseas. The moment we exclude someone, we tear a country from its pursuit of an ideal future, and start focusing on destruction as opposed to positive change and an inclusive future for everyone. These ideal values cut across faith and political beliefs but are found in the overlapping spheres of our civil society, which can bridge the current, dualistic fight over power in political institutions.

The Together Project is one example of how civil society can come together to preserve space for all by ensuring that no one person or institution is removed from our country’s identity.

Yes, it is often essential to loudly pushback against injustice, but any effort should not be at the cost of pushing someone else out of your country’s future. Otherwise, they will fall back on the politics and an identity of division and fear.

Sam Worthington



Sam Worthington is Chief Executive Officer of InterAction, leading the U.S. NGO sector’s engagement with the UN, governments, and civil society groups around the world. He testifies before the U.S. Congress, routinely consults with the administration, speaks to boards and at universities, and is a regular contributor on numerous national and international media outlets.

Mike Fox

Manager, Strategic Initiatives


Mike Fox is the Manager for Strategic Initiatives at InterAction, leading cross-organization projects that help the alliance increase its impact, organizational effectiveness, and institutional reach. He also supports the CEO with policy and communications related research, analysis, writing, and editing.