Leonard Pitts: The Trump show must go on

FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 5, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump removes his mask as he stands on the Blue Room Balcony upon returning to the White House in Washington, after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. Trump announced he tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“Are you not entertained?”

— Maximus, in “Gladiator”

It helps if you think of it as a show.

Certainly, that’s the way the man in the middle of it does. So just consider last weekend the latest bizarre episode in Season Four of the Donald Trump presidency. Call it “The One With COVID-19.”

Granted, it’s a favored conservative trope that liberals are the ones held hostage to so-called “Hollywood” values. But there is no one who embodies the worst of the dream factory — of image over substance and overweening self-regard — more than the reality show impresario Trump. He has turned the presidency into a production, stage-managed his office — and now, his COVID-19 diagnosis — with the sole aim of boosting his ego and political prospects.

People have already died from this. Based on this latest episode, there may well be more to come.

It could be a White House butler, chef or janitor. Maybe a body man, a journalist or a Secret Service agent. Maybe some member of Cult 45 who will be persuaded to emulate Dear Leader’s cavalier attitude toward a deadly virus. “Don’t be afraid of COVID,” tweeted Trump before leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Monday, almost certainly against the advice of his doctors. “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Someone will likely die from that — on a ventilator, miserable and alone, gasping out the last of life, as loved ones can only watch via FaceTime or Skype. For whatever it’s worth, it could yet be Trump himself. Because you may lie, deny and deflect to your heart’s content, but eventually, the piper presents her bill.

Of course, we all know how Trump treats creditors. So one is hardly shocked that, even after his diagnosis, with at least 14 people in his orbit — including his wife, his press secretary and former aide Kellyanne “alternative facts” Conway — also testing positive, Trump still acts as if COVID-19 is no big deal. He is less concerned with being well than with seeming well, with depicting himself as unbowed and in charge.

So you get that aimless motorcade around the hospital — some poor Secret Service driver trapped with him as he waves at MAGA hats while breathing out disease inside the hermetically sealed presidential vehicle. And you get that picture purporting to show the laziest president in recent history “working” at the hospital. And you get that return to the White House where he stands on a balcony and makes a dramatic show of removing his mask, then strides his infected body into a building full of government workers.

Trump is a living Hollywood facade — a front with nothing inside. So he resorts to photo ops like those to make him appear rugged and tough, with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. It’s all as fake as a Western street on a Universal Studios back lot. Yet he will go to great lengths to make it seem real.

Consider how he pressured his doctor, Sean Conley, to give a rosier assessment of his condition than was medically warranted. Conley even embraced his patient’s love of hyperbole, dubbing Trump a “phenomenal patient,” whatever in the world that might be. It was a dubious performance that cost Conley professional respect; a colleague said he behaved like “a spin doctor, not a medical doctor.”

But never mind, so long as Trump got what he wanted.

And never mind the chef, the janitor, the journalist, the Secret Service agent. Never mind 210,000 Americans already dead. Never mind anything but the performer and his performance. You know what they say in Hollywood: The show must go on.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com