The past week was one of the dramatic highpoints in the wildly popular White House soap opera 'The Trump Show'.
A stricken president does battle with a deadly virus while the nation holds it breath (generally good practice during a pandemic), sends video messages from a hospital room that looks a lot like the set in Celebrity Apprentice, takes part in a drive-by photo op waving to his fans outside the hospital and flies to the White House to ascend a balcony where he slowly removes his mask and salutes a helicopter.
The choreography and production were top-notch and the end product was a good-to-go video tweeted to the president's supporters, and already inserted in election TV commercials. The balcony scene was immediately iconic, an extraordinary example of political theatre. Trump detractors were quick to reference Mussolini - but the imagery was not created for them.
Whether you found it risible or thrilling, it was hard to look away. Even as you gazed, you may have found it too much - have we not had enough already?
This is the mind warp, the cognitive overload and mental exhaustion that has become a common response to the Trump presidency It is amplified but also normalised by endless cycles of outrage. An opinion piece in the New York Times this week asked, "There is Too Much Happening: How Can We Possibly Make Sense of it All?"
Of course, creating confusion and distraction is a core feature of 'The Trump Show'. It is not designed to make sense in any conventional political or policy terms.
Instead, the Trump presidency is commonly referred to as a circus and a reality TV show, underlining its conflation of entertainment and politics, a spectacular dramaturgy with Trump's ego at its centre.
But the ratings for 'The Trump Show' are down and falling. Is this the final season? Will the latest episode, 'Trump Versus the Virus,' restore the ratings? If not, how far will Trump go to get them back?
Drawing on the circus analogy, early detractors of Trump's run for election in 2016 referred to his campaign as "a clown car," though much of that humour has worn thin. A more useful and abiding analogy is that of the confidence game.
Trump embodies that most American of American archetypes: the huckster or "confidence man", a figure with a long history in US culture from at least the early 19th century. He is a charlatan whose schemes invariably fail. In the end, he skips town, leaving those he has scammed to learn their lesson.
The confidence man is often a comic figure. He crops up in Herman Melville's and Mark Twain's satirical depictions of a rampantly commercial republic.
Sometimes he's no more than a fast-talking, comic disrupter - think Sergeant Bilko or even The Cat in the Hat. But the confidence man comes in darker manifestations too. He not only plays with other people's trust; he abuses it to rob or control them.
Melville portrays that darkness in his last novel The Confidence-Man: A Masquerade. Published in 1857, it takes place on a Mississippi River steamer where the title character scams fellow passengers.
The river boat is a floating allegory of the nation, filled with "a flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools" - all susceptible to "the power of persuasive fascination".
The confidence man sells confidence, and the currency is trust. He tells people what they want to hear, articulating desires not commonly expressed and capitalises on these. Trump understands this. "I play to people's fantasies," he remarks in his book The Art of the Deal, "I call it truthful hyperbole."
In his election campaign in 2016, Trump zeroed in on the sense of disaffection and vulnerability among many Americans and particularly by middle-aged, lower-educated white people.
As he pushed through the ranks of Republican candidates, stared down the GOP leadership, and rode out several scandals, the aura of confidence grew to become a signature part of his appeal. As author Max Boot would later observe: "Trump's superpower is his shamelessness."
Trump's confidence game cannot work without the preparedness of a large portion of the American public to invest - emotionally, psychologically - in what he is selling.
It is Trump's construction of a compelling fantasy for his supporters that is one of the most extraordinary features of his presidency, as is his capacity to project this as their desired reality.
But what happens when the performance hits reality buffers and confidence oozes away?
Trump has been in a dramatic stand-off with the coronavirus for most of the year, at first telling Americans it was not a serious threat to the US: "We have it totally under control."
The virus calls Trump's bluff
Then he said it is no more dangerous than the flu, then that "it's going to disappear… like a miracle", then politicised it by rejecting scientific expertise, denying federal responsibility, and belittling the wearing of masks.
Holding public rallies, the unmasked Trump was defying the virus, his own good health a rebuke to its deadly reputation.
Last week, the virus called his bluff.
A frightening indication of Trump's power to align followers with his will is their readiness to expose themselves to the virus.
To sustain the fantasy that the virus is not as dangerous as "experts" say and that Trump has the virus under control, they have had to live the lie - an astonishing demonstration of how authoritarian populist leadership functions.
The Spanish journalist Andrés Miguel Rondón distils the populist appeal of an alternative reality: "Populism is not a system of facts or solutions, operating in the complex world of policy and legislation, but rather an interactive fiction, borne of posturing and symbolism, where whole countries can become not what they are, but what they believe themselves to be."
Trump's populist appeal in the US is this interactive fiction. His deceptions are widely endorsed as an alternative reality.
The fright is not that Trump lies but that he is mandated to do so: his performance of lies and fabrications is what makes him real for supporters.
And when reality bites? Trump doubles down on his performance and takes the fight to reality itself. So we have the dramatic spectacle: Trump versus the Virus.
In the red corner, the 74-year-old 45th President of the US, a "bit overweight" but in "astonishingly excellent" health, according to his personal physician. In the blue corner, the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, aka the plague, a known killer, unbeaten in all contests.
Trump is a veteran of the World Wrestling Entertainment universe and this contest has many of its trappings. He will wrestle death to submission. (As it happens, there was an American wrestler of middling fame in the 1980s and 90s called the Angel of Death).
He wins a three-day bout in Walter Reed hospital. He addresses his public in triumph: "Don't let it dominate you. Don't be afraid of it. You're going to beat it."
In the last few days, Trump has talked up a coronavirus vaccine being "immediately ready" and available to all Americans by April next year. An ABC News/Ipsos poll this week reported that most Americans do not believe these claims: 69pc said they had no confidence in Trump to vouch for vaccine effectiveness.
This lack of confidence in Trump over his handling of the pandemic is potentially fatal in electoral terms. In the same poll, respondents were asked who they view as "more honest and trustworthy". Trump received 39pc to Joe Biden's 58pc.
Those are significant statistics. When running against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump frequently scored higher than his opponent on questions of trust. In 2020, that trust has ebbed away.
There are signs that Trump's confidence is also ebbing. It is no less voluble but it is less assured, making him a much-diminished performer. This was evident in his hysterical turn in the first election debate with Biden, a contrast with his much calmer if creepy performances in the debates with Hillary Clinton.
That over-the-top performance was almost certainly a tactic to prey on Biden's lifelong stammer, creating so much noise that the Democrat's policy points could not be heard.
But Trump was so bellicose and bullying that he will have alienated many watching. Strategically, it looks a losing gambit.
With the Trump team looking at electoral defeat, their last throw of the dice is to ramp up the decibels on the disinformation of electoral fraud, increasing disaffection with the electoral process and hoping to win in the courts or maybe even in the streets.
These last few weeks promise to be loud and chaotic. If Trump loses in November, he is likely to contest the result and not go quietly. Many of his followers will remain firm believers (it is hard to admit when you have been scammed) and willingly stay aboard the ship of fools.
How determined is their captain to hold on to power and continue to defy reality?
Herman Melville may offer a clue in his most charismatic confidence man, Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. No plyer of cheap scams, Ahab is the messianic leader who bends followers - the crew of the ship Pequod - to his will in his crazed quest to destroy the white whale. In a metaphysical rage, he vows to "strike through the mask" of reality and assert his identity. Trump of course, has his own issues with masks.
Ahab took his ship and most of his crew down with him.
Liam Kennedy is professor of American Studies and director of the Clinton Institute, University College Dublin