Charles Sykes is a former talk-radio host from Wisconsin. He is now editor at large at the Bulwark.

How big was Rush Limbaugh?

We are all now living in the world that he created in his own image.

No history of modern conservatism would be complete without recognizing that he was both the alpha and the omega; the founder of a right-wing media ecosystem and the architect of our current political moment — Donald Trump and all.

For decades, Limbaugh, who died of lung cancer on Wednesday at age 70, was at the center of it all. It is hard to overstate the role that the syndicated talk-radio host played in the transformation of the character and culture of the conservative movement. Every Republican over a certain age has a story about how they were inspired or influenced by him.

But his legacy is double-edged. Limbaugh pioneered the rise of the outrage/entertainment wing to dominance in the GOP, a project that culminated in Trump’s presidency and a political culture that is driven less by facts and substance than by snark, sophistry and alternative realities.

To a degree that is not always understood on the left, Limbaugh invented a new genre in which conservatism could be entertaining, even fun. He was a master at using parodies as weapons. He was outrageous and daring; occasionally funny and charming, but also often dishonest and offensive.

While his friends describe him as gracious and generous, Limbaugh also cultivated an insensitivity that normalized cruelty, racism and misogyny.

As a radio talk-show host myself, I admired his skill as a broadcaster, even as I was alarmed by the role he was choosing to play. For years, I had pushed back against the charge that talk radio was simply about entertainment, outrage and anger. I made an effort to talk about issues and struggled to find ways to repackage conservative ideas in fresh terms.

But as time went on, Limbaugh went in another direction. If Limbaugh was once a thought leader among conservatives, he ended his career very much as a follower, scrambling to keep up with his people. As his ratings and ad revenue faded, he found himself in competition with younger, crazier outlets and he spent less and less time on actual substance, leaning instead into outrage and grievance.

The fact is that Limbaugh was fundamentally uninterested in ideas, and by the time he had helped Trump’s improbable rise to the presidency, the host was essentially done with conservatism as a set of principles. “I never once talked about conservatism” during the presidential campaign, Limbaugh told his listeners after Trump’s election, “because that isn’t what this is about.”

For years, he had touted what he called his “Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.” But in the era of Trump, he announced that he had changed it to the “Institute for Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies.”

Neither, of course, actually existed.

But Limbaugh had succeeded in shaping Trump’s understanding of a conservative media where ridicule ruled and ad hominem attacks took the place of political substance.

For Trump, Limbaugh was always the role model par excellence.

Last year, when Trump baselessly suggested that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have murdered a young staffer, Limbaugh explained to his listeners that “people don’t get the subtlety of Trump because they don’t think he has the ability to be subtle. Trump never says that he believes these conspiracy theories that he touts. He’s simply passing them on.”

Here we got Limbaugh’s late-stage sophistry in full: his tortured and disingenuous rationalizations, the hint that he is letting his audience in on some “secret knowledge,” and, of course, the “fun” of “watching these holier-than-thou leftist journalists react like their moral sensibilities have been forever rocked and can never recover.”

And this is how he ended his career.

Even as he faced his own mortality, Limbaugh in the past year floated conspiracy theories, toyed with the idea of secession, mocked environmental concerns, insisted the presidential election was stolen and confidently declared that the coronavirus was just “the common cold.” He seemed to raise the possibility of civil war, declaring, “There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs.” To the end, he played down the attack on the Capitol, and refused to recognize the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s electoral win, insisting that the inauguration was “something that’s been arranged, rather than legitimately sought and won.”

On Wednesday, Trump called in to Fox News to express his gratitude to the man who had done so much to prepare the way for him.

“Rush thought we won, and so did I,” Trump said, reiterating his Big Lie. “Rush felt that way strongly. . . . He was quite angry about it.”

Unfortunately, that could be Limbaugh’s epitaph.

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