The Republican Party's birther problem isn't limited to the past

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. 

In Sen. Jeff Flake's (R-Ariz.) new book, he reflects on many in his party losing sight of their core principles, largely out of cowardice. "We forgot to affirm in a voice loud and clear that yes, we are proud Republicans, but that we believe in country before party," Flake argues. "We forgot to do that. We were afraid to do that."

On "Meet the Press" yesterday, NBC News' Chuck Todd asked the Arizona Republican yesterday if his party and the conservative movement are still afraid. Flake responded:

"Well, I do think that we've seen more people ready to stand up. And I wish that we, as a party, would have stood up, for example, when the birtherism thing was going along."A lot of people did stand up, but not enough.... That was particularly ugly."

Asked if he believes he did enough, Flake added, "On that, I think I did."

There are a few ways to look at this. At face value, Flake's correct: much of his party's base embraced a racist conspiracy theory, and many Republican leaders kept their mouths shut, afraid to anger right-wing activists and conservative media. This allowed a toxicity to spread throughout GOP politics, and now Donald Trump, whose sole contribution to American politics was championing that racist conspiracy theory, is the president of the United States.

As for whether Flake did his part to stand up to the garbage, it's probably fair to say his record is mixed.

But just as important is the fact that it's probably a mistake to perceive this as an ugly stain on Republican politics from the Obama era -- because the truth is the problem hasn't disappeared; it's evolved.

Trump, for example, recently nominated John Bush for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals despite the fact that Bush was a far-right blogger who peddled birther nonsense. Jeff Flake said yesterday that too many in his party didn't stand up to this "particularly ugly" trash, but as the Washington Post's Dave Weigel noted yesterday, Flake nevertheless voted two weeks ago to confirm Bush to a lifetime appointment on the appellate bench.

Standing up to birthers in recent years would've been decent and responsible, but what about standing up to some of those same figures now?

On this front, the party continues to fall short. Not only is Trump in the Oval Office, but today the Republican National Committee announced Kayleigh McEnany, up until recently a cringe-worthy pundit on CNN, has joined the RNC as its new national spokeswoman -- despite her work in peddling birther "jokes" in the not-too-distant past.

Stop thinking about the Republicans' birther problem as a mistake from some bygone era. As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."