In the picture, he was smiling. He saluted. He gave a thumbs-up. He did not need to wear a mask. That would suggest that he was contagious and the people around him needed to be protected. That would not be a picture of strength. President Trump was putting his whole soul into this shot, and it had to be perfect.

He had been at the hospital minutes ago; he was still battling the coronavirus. But there was an image to be maintained. He took off the mask and smiled, and the photographer dutifully snapped his picture.

Donald Trump accepted that reality existed only on television. Being ill was not the kind of thing to be fixed in a hospital (he must not stay in the hospital); it was the kind of thing to be fixed in post-production. As long as he got the right shot, he would be fine. Not the vaccine; that hardly mattered; besides, maybe he was immune already. There was a video where someone very trustworthy (the President of the United States, even!) said that he could possibly be immune. In other words, the thought was out there. He had only to sit back and see what miracle might occur in the editing room.

All he needed to do, now, was capture a picture in which things were back to normal, and reality would take care of itself. Perhaps two pictures, to be safe. And not with masks; that might give the impression that there was still contagion in him, although the picture from when he rode in his SUV and waved had been inspiring, certainly.

Every day it seemed that more people around him were falling sick. The press secretary had tested positive for the coronavirus. Stephen Miller had tested positive for the coronavirus. Chris Christie had tested positive for the coronavirus. But that was all right. They were not in the picture!

Donald Trump felt great. At least, there was a video of him saying that he felt great, which was much the same.

And if anyone had further questions about how he was doing, they had merely to look at the pictures. In the pictures, he was working, even at Walter Reed. He had written his name in enormous Sharpie letters on a sheet of paper. He was waving and giving a thumbs-up. In the videos, he said that he felt better. The pictures did not lie. Reality sometimes did.

If a graph showed too many deaths, the trick was to get a different graph. If the hurricane was headed in a bad direction, you could simply change the direction with a pen. All of this was fixable.

Other people? There were no other people in the picture.

Outside the picture, Kellyanne Conway tested positive. Hope Hicks tested positive. Bill Stepien tested positive. Two White House housekeepers reported testing positive.

But in the picture, the White House looked magnificent. You could not see the virus; it was too small for the camera to see. It made it seem as though it might not be there at all.

The mystery was how it had gotten to him in the first place; there had never been any pictures where anything looked anything but fine. Especially in the Rose Garden, gathered together to announce Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court — safe, back to normal, as you could see, because people in the picture were sitting close together without masks. Bewildering, then, that the number of infected kept climbing.

Sometimes it was as though the rest of the world did not understand how this worked. When he turned to the TV, sometimes it showed the right picture, and sometimes not. Sometimes it seemed as though his mirror didn’t know the narrative it was supposed to be working to uphold. The test, too, had been very disappointing; it had not realized what an embarrassment it would be to come back positive.

It was so frustrating when he worked so hard to get the picture right. There was no need for all these people to be sick. There was certainly no need for anyone to die. Look at the picture. Everything in the picture was perfectly normal.

It would be a mistake to believe that somewhere in the depths of the White House hangs a picture of Donald Trump that grows daily more unrecognizably hideous. Trump would not suffer a picture of himself to look bad. But there is nothing wrong with storing your soul in a picture, as long as you are willing to do unthinkable things to get the right shot.

There is little he would not do to maintain that perfect image. There is no one he would not sacrifice.

Read more from Alexandra Petri: