The White House released a photograph on Twitter from a 'closed press' meeting with President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the House Freedom Caucus last week. Image Credit: White House

During the great Republican health-care debacle, United States President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence met with the far-right congressional Freedom Caucus to discuss, among other things, stripping out requirements for insurance companies to cover maternity, newborn and pregnancy care.

After the meeting, Pence tweeted a photo of two dozen men sitting around a table. Kellyanne Conway was reportedly in the room, but in the picture the vice-president circulated, there was not a woman in sight.

For liberals, the photo seemed like an inadvertent insight into the current Republican psyche: Powerful men plotting to leave vulnerable women up a creek, so ensconced in their misogynistic world they don’t even notice the bad optics (not to mention the irony of the “pro-life” party making it harder for women to afford to have babies).

Political analysts treated the photo as a gaffe, the kind of rookie mistake we’re used to seeing from the Trump White House.

I’m not so sure.

Men cutting health care for women

This isn’t the first celebratory photo the White House has released of men cutting health care for women.

When Trump signed the global “gag rule”, which pulls US funding from organisations abroad that so much as mention the word “abortion” (even organisations that don’t provide abortions), he did it flanked by a half-dozen white men in suits.

The rule is an order that primarily affects women in developing countries, who will see their access to contraception and even basic services like malaria treatment constrained by funding cuts that politicise global health.

That image was similar to the one of former president George W. Bush surrounded entirely by grinning men as he signed a ban on a rare abortion procedure.

At some point, we have to ask: Is this really a pattern of errors? Maybe these aren’t tone-deaf mistakes at all, but intentional messages to right-wing supporters.

Trump ran a campaign of aggrieved masculinity, appealing to men who felt their rightful place in society has been taken from them by a stream of immigrants stealing their jobs, women who don’t need husbands to support them and members of minority groups who don’t work as hard but still get special treatment.

Crass sexism

Trump oozes male entitlement, from his brash insistence that he’s the best at everything despite knowing very little about anything to his history of crass sexism.

Liberal political analysts, and even some conservative ones, assumed that would hurt him in a more feminist world.

With women, it did, though not as much as people might have expected. It didn’t hurt him with men, though — Trump won them with the biggest gender gap since the advent of exit polling.

That he was running against Hillary Clinton, the quintessential Hermione outsmarting the boys in class, brought this white masculinity message into sharper relief: Trump supporters didn’t just oppose Clinton, they hated her with unchecked rage.

Trump promised he would make America great again, a slogan that included the implicit pledge to return white men to their place of historic supremacy. And that is precisely what these photos show.

The same kind of men who have been in charge of the US since its founding, so very proud of themselves for trying to ax the rights that make it possible for women to chart their own futures — and to compete with men.

If women can’t decide for themselves when and if to have children and are instead at the mercy of men and nature, there will simply never be 50 per cent of us at that table, or in any halls of power. The men of the Republican Party know this just as well as women do.

Of course, the reality behind the photo is nearly as disturbing as the image itself. There weren’t many women in that room because the Freedom Caucus appears to be almost entirely male. Women make up less than 9 per cent of Congressional Republicans.

Most white Cabine

Trump’s Cabinet is the most white and male in 35 years. Among his top staff members, men outnumber women 2 to 1. From the top of the Republican Party on down, men run the show; there just aren’t enough women for every photo.

Yet this, too, is a choice, and it also sends a message about the party’s values and to whom it appeals. Republicans bank on a white male voter base that is shrinking demographically, yet they are making no real effort to broaden their appeal, perhaps counting on voter suppression to make it harder for likely Democratic voters to cast their ballots, and simultaneously throwing red meat to the men they need to turn out to carry them to victory.

That’s why Trump’s infamous lewd comments about his conduct with women weren’t actually a liability. The people those comments offended weren’t going to vote for him in the first place, and the people most drawn to Trump liked him because he’s an unrepentant chauvinist, not in spite of it.

The Trump team is well aware of this dynamic, which is why it doesn’t spend much time worrying about even putting forward a facade of diversity. The great America it promised has white men at the top, and that’s the image they’re projecting, figuratively and literally. It’s not an error, it’s the game plan.

Of course, it might be a losing one — despite seven years of lead time and a majority in Congress, Republicans couldn’t cobble together a health care bill they could all agree on.

That failure came because the men of the Freedom Caucus refused to vote for a bill that didn’t meet every one of their demands, and the demands of theirs that were met were sufficiently alienating to the more moderate members of their party that many of them (including several women) probably weren’t going to vote for the bill, either.

The incompetence of the boys’ club effectively saved funding for Planned Parenthood and insurance coverage of maternity care. But don’t expect them to learn the lesson that this should be the last female-free image (and female-unfriendly policy) the Republican leadership proudly touts.

For liberal women, this latest all-male photo is a visualisation of their worst fears realised. For many Trump supporters, though, it’s evidence of a promise fulfilled.

— New York Times News Service

Jill Filipovic is a New York attorney and feminist author.