For the past several days, including today, the most trafficked piece of content on Politico.com has been a slideshow of 17 wire pictures featuring Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and her long-time aide Huma Abedin in various settings, including the 2008 campaign trail and several countries Clinton visited as Secretary of State. Its description refers to Abedin as Clinton’s “body woman”—an appellation borrowed, it seems, from a 2006 Observer article—and Abedin’s job as “assisting the former secretary of state’s move back into her private life.” Its title is, “How close are Huma Abedin and Hillary Clinton?”
What’s noteworthy about this particular slideshow is not its subtext, which is easy enough to guess. What’s noteworthy is its timestamp. These 17 photos were arranged and published nearly three years ago, in July 2013. The staffer who selected them no longer works for Politico. And the photos themselves are equal in their banality: in several of them, the two women are seen walking down nondescript hallways, or standing on rural tarmacs, or looking at the same piece of paper. Why, then, have these images continued to gobble up so much of Politico’s traffic?
A review of Politico’s assorted social media accounts indicates the political news organization is not intentionally driving traffic to these 17 photos. Neither its Facebook or Twitter pages have recently promoted them. That suggests the slideshow’s popularity is entirely organic. It’s true, of course, that determining the cause of an older item’s surge of popularity remains fraught with error—remember Gawker’s “vajazzling” mystery?—but it’s safe to assume, even in the absence of detailed traffic data, that Politico’s audience is very interested in Clinton and Abedin’s relationship.
Where did this sudden surge of interest come from, though? Clinton is perhaps the most famous woman in the world and currently the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Abedin is one of her closest aides, so there is going to be a certain amount of built-in attention toward them as a pair. But the recent popularity of Politico’s Abedin-Clinton slideshow points to the resurgence of something else entirely: The conservative movement’s unique fixation on Abedin’s relationship with Clinton, and the power of its corresponding media outlets—The Drudge Report, Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and on and on—to shape, steer, and reward the same fixation.
The Drudge Report, the bare-bones website operated by Matt Drudge since 1997, appears to be partly responsible for this renewed attention. On April 5, two days before Politico’s slideshow resurfaced at the top of their most-read list, Drudge prominently linked to a Daily Mail article detailing the most interesting bits of Abedin’s recent appearance on the popular “Call Your Girlfriend” podcast, during which the aide recalled meeting Clinton for the first time: “I still remember the look on her face. And it’s funny, and she would probably be so annoyed that I say this, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, she’s so beautiful and she’s so little!’”
By itself, Abedin’s recollection is not particularly interesting. Based on the way he linked to Mail article, however, Drudge apparently detected notes of sexual desire, or maybe jealousy, between Abedin and Clinton:
There is some truth to the suggestion that Clinton and Abedin are remarkably close for women of their age and prominence. But their closeness is not necessarily illogical; they have, after all, worked together for the past two decades, during which women began to hold higher and higher offices within American politics. And Clinton and Abedin have navigated these tumultuous years despite their respective marriages to Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner, two male politicians who repeatedly cheated on their wives.
The idea that Clinton and Abedin are romantically involved, however, stems from a decades-old rumor—which has never been substantiated—that Clinton is secretly a lesbian or bisexual. The most well-known evidence for this rumor is either circumstantial (she attended Wellesley, a women’s college in Massachusetts; she married Bill Clinton, who repeatedly cheated on her; she seeks to become President of the United States, an office no sane heterosexual woman would ever think of filling) or so old as to cast doubt on its legitimacy. This is not to say there is a lack of people who will claim, on the record, using their own names, that Hillary Clinton is gay. Last year, for example, a woman named Gennifer Flowers, whom Bill Clinton had sex with in the 1970s, told media outlets that the former President had confided in her several decades ago that his wife is attracted to women, and that he had made peace with her sexuality: “He said Hillary had eaten more pussy than he had.” Two months ago, another one of Clinton’s alleged mistresses from the same era, Sally Miller, claimed he had told her that his wife “liked females more than men.”
Now, it is entirely possible that Clinton is in fact a lesbian; that she has had sex with women on the side; and that she has tolerated her marriage to Bill Clinton, even through his humiliating affairs, in service of her own political ambitions. Human sexuality is a mysterious thing. But the persistent intrigue surrounding Clinton’s relationship with Abedin, whatever its contours or secrets may be, appears to be only tangentially related to the former Secretary of State’s rumored homosexuality.
There aren’t any scientific polls concerning the American populace’s opinion toward Abedin, but you can get a sense of what certain segments of populace are thinking pretty easily via social media. When you search for “Huma Abedin” on Twitter, for example, you won’t see very many tweets about her rumored coupledom with Clinton. You will, however, see a lot of tweets about her religious upbringing, and how she may or may not be manipulating Clinton into carrying out the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, the militant Islamist social movement founded in 1928:
HUMA ABEDIN, Hillary Clinton’s campaign vice chairwoman says Hillary is ready to welcome ALL the Muslim refugees fr… pic.twitter.com/vXIqUKoy1S— anonvox (@anonvoxourvoice) February 17, 2016
KILLARY SECT HUMA ABEDIN IS A MUSLIM WITH TIES TO MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD SECURITY BREACH NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT pic.twitter.com/eoHvAIu2my— Tony (@AKAnowhere) March 8, 2016
This particular conspiracy theory did not burble up from the dredges of the right-wing internet. It came from the halls of Congress. In July 2012, five Republican U.S. Representatives—Michelle Bachmann, Trent Franks, Louie Gohmert, Thomas Rooney, and Lynn Westmoreland—sent a 4-page letter to the State Department’s deputy inspector general, requesting an review of Abedin’s required security clearance. Their chief allegation: “The Department’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin, has three family members—her late father, her mother and her brother—connected to Muslim Brotherhood operatives and/or organizations.” The same letter asserted that the Secretary of State has “taken actions recently that have been enormously favorable to the Muslim Brotherhood and its interests,” thereby implying that Abedin’s alleged sympathies to the Brotherhood were influencing State Department policy. (As you may have guessed, many tweets similar to those embedded above link directly to Politico’s Clinton-Abedin slideshow.)
It is true that Abedin was raised as a Muslim by two immigrant parents who had emigrated to Kalamazoo, Michigan (her father from India and her mother from Pakistan) before her family relocated to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where her parents found work as academics. It is also true that her father, mother and brother have belonged, at certain points in time, to organizations that have been funded by or associated with individuals or organizations with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. You can even read about these connections on conservative websites, whose competing write-ups feature highly variable degrees of sobriety, but none of them claim to show a) that Abedin has anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, or b) that Abedin constructed State Department policy to assist the Brotherhood.
Indeed, the insinuations that Abedin was guilty of either charge were so unfounded, and so outrageous, that John McCain, a Republican and the senior Senator from Arizona, publicly rebuked Michelle Bachmann and the letter’s other authors for leveling “an unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American and a loyal public servant.”
McCain’s defense of Abedin did not exactly squelch the rumors about her ties to Muslim Brotherhood; if anything, it inflamed them. But it’s hard to say what the Senator or anyone else could have done to get rid of them entirely. Through a series of foreign wars and domestic surveillance programs, the U.S. government has systemically marginalized Muslims here and abroad, which has in turn bred intense mistrust between Muslim communities and more conservative segments of society. (The speed in which Muslim voters migrated from the G.O.P. to the Democratic Party following the September 11, 2001 attacks is unprecedented.) And that mistrust has not abated. Despite his promise to ban the travel of Muslims to the United States, Donald J. Trump remains the Republican frontrunner in the 2016 election.
It is unlikely that Trump will be President. If current polls hold, the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton. Which means that Abedin, should she remain in Clinton’s circle, is poised to become one of the most prominent and powerful Muslims in the United States, one with the longstanding trust of the future chief executive. Considering the treatment of Muslims over the past fifteen years, many people would consider this a sign of progress.
Those who think otherwise—those inclined to believe that Abedin’s future office amounts to a profound betrayal of the American presidency—are ultimately less concerned with Abedin’s personal qualities, or the strength of her relationship with Clinton, than the scary idea of a Muslim inhabiting the White House, if not the Oval Office proper. You only need to look at what happened in 2008, between an ascendant U.S. Senator named Barack Hussein Obama and the vociferous conservative media, to see how such a fear can infect the political process, including Clinton’s own failed campaign, and how the same fear can be overcome.