Why Donald Trump Is Flailing

The GOP primary left him ill-prepared for the scrutiny he’s finally getting.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump
Then–Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during a primary debate on Aug. 6 in Cleveland.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

There is a widespread belief that Donald Trump is immune to criticism, that he’s the new Teflon Don. And the proof of his apparent invulnerability is his success against a field of Republican leading lights. By beating 16 other candidates for the party’s nomination, goes the argument, Trump demonstrated his singular strength as a political force. But this is a retcon.

Look carefully at the Republican primaries and one fact sticks out: From the time Trump announced his campaign in July to the last stretch of the Iowa caucuses, Trump was untouched by his competitors. Yes, at debates and in forums, they criticized him for insufficient conservatism and bad manners but that was the extent of the pushback with few exceptions (which included juvenile mockery). On core questions of his persona and candidacy—his checkered business record, his shady relationships, his unscrupulous ventures—Republicans were silent. That meant Trump could run for the nomination without having to deal with, or answer, questions about the most embarrassing and controversial parts of his record. Republicans allowed Trump to sell himself as a master businessman, and that’s what he did.

The reality star and tabloid mainstay thrived in the primary’s fetid swamp where—without substantive attacks on his record or persona—he could suck attention from his competitors and avoid serious scrutiny. And it’s clear he expects to do the same in the general election, dominating daytime cable airwaves with outrageous statements and conspiratorial attacks—a campaign waged via greenroom and speed dial. But as Trump is learning, to his chagrin, the general is a different environment, and here—where the press has just two targets and he’s up against one campaign, not 16—the scrutiny and the pressure are much, much greater.

Indeed, the past few days have told us something important: Far from finding strength in the fight for the Republican nomination, Trump was ill-served by the dysfunction of it all. In escaping much of the close examination of a presidential primary, he has entered the general election ill-prepared for the most basic interactions between a candidate and the press.

It’s how we got the spectacle of Tuesday, when an enraged Trump went on a rampage against journalists after some cursory scrutiny around his much-touted donations to veterans’ groups. A Washington Post report found major discrepancies; not only had Trump raised less than he’d claimed at his veterans’ fundraiser in January, he hadn’t made his promised $1 million donation either. If this were still the Republican primary—during which Trump was running against opponents who dared not touch him, for fear of alienating his supporters—he might have escaped the inevitable blowback that comes with stiffing veterans.

Instead, he had to deal with a press that was singularly focused on his actions as the Republican presidential nominee. Which makes sense: It’s exactly the scrutiny you receive when you reach this point in American politics. Trump couldn’t handle it. During the course of his news conference, he railed against the press corps as “not good people,” singled out ABC’s Tom Llamas as a “sleaze,” and mocked the looks of CNN’s Jim Acosta. “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I have ever met, I have to tell you,” he said. “I see the stories, and I see the way they’re couched.”

Trump threw a tantrum. And we’re sure to see it again. He isn’t just unaccustomed to the attention and scrutiny of the political press; he’s temperamentally unsuited to it as well. But this focus on his veterans’ activities is just the beginning.

The same day Trump fell apart in the face of some basic questioning over his charity, the public won access to unsealed documents in the real estate mogul’s legal battles over the now-defunct Trump University, a for-profit school started in 2005. The papers detail an organization that critics describe as predatory and fraudulent. “I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme,” said one sales manager in his testimony, “and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”

The papers are a gold mine of information that reveal the extent to which Trump lent his name and endorsement to operations designed for no purpose other than to extract wealth from ordinary people. Trump sold his university as a tool that would help everyday Americans improve their financial position, something that would “teach you better than the best business school.” His employee practices, however, told a story of rapaciousness: Trump University employees were pushed to sell expensive courses, upward of $35,000, to struggling customers in what sounds like a glorified telemarketing scheme. (You can almost imagine employees complaining “the leads are weak” to a Trump simulacrum screaming “always be closing.”)

Already, Democrats are slamming Trump as a “con-man who profited off of the misery of others,” a charge he’ll have to respond to. He’ll also have to deal with growing and aggressive questions from the press, who will want details on how he ran this and other businesses. And on top of all of this scrutiny and attack, Trump will have to build a campaign operation and continue to unite the Republican Party, a task complicated by his drive to hit all critics, even if they’re allies.

After Ted Cruz left the GOP race and Trump had all but clinched the nomination, Republicans tried to sell themselves on the idea of a silver lining in all of this: that Trump might be more competitive that he looks, that he might help the party expand in traditionally Democratic states. But if this week is any indication, those hopes are delusions. Trump isn’t just a compromised candidate hated by large parts of the electorate—he’s hardly a candidate at all, with few of the skills or qualities you need to survive at the highest levels of national politics. Trump has all the markings of a paper tiger, and there’s a good chance he’ll be torn apart like one, too.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.