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Fight over Rush Limbaugh’s true legacy began immediately after his death

Reactions to Rush Limbaugh’s death immediately devolved into arguments on social media on Wednesday — reflecting the fact that Limbaugh was always an American symbol of division.

Right-wing media outlets and personalities extolled Limbaugh as a trailblazer — but the trail he blazed was exactly why critics derided him. The New York Times podcast host Jane Coaston summed it up this way: “Rush Limbaugh was the first person I ever recognized existed largely as a Rorschach test,” she said on Twitter Wednesday afternoon.

“There is no talk radio as we know it without Rush Limbaugh,” fellow broadcaster Sean Hannity said on Fox News in the minutes following the announcement of Limbaugh’s death.

Hannity went on to say that there would be no Fox News “or even some of these other opinionated cable networks” were it not for Limbaugh.

Conservative host and author Ben Shapiro tweeted similar sentiments: “RIP Rush Limbaugh, the creator of talk radio and by extension the alternative media, an indispensable and iconic conservative voice.”

His voice “made opponents into true enemies” and “revived overt and dog whistle racism,” Jeffrey P. Jones, the executive director of the Peabody Awards, said on Twitter.

Jones argued that Limbaugh “made partisan propaganda into a consumable product with tremendous market value” and “laid the groundwork for the triumph of MAGA and Trumpism, a reality we will deal with for decades to come.”

Many other commentators credited or blamed Limbaugh with setting the radio stage for Trump’s presidency.

“The trends you’ve seen in the GOP over the last five years have all been visible on Limbaugh’s show for decades — not just because he prefigured them but because he helped create Trump’s Republican Party,” wrote Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of the Right,” a book about conservative media.

CNN media analyst Bill Carter said Limbaugh blazed a trail for Trump: “Bombastic, egotistical, he took advantage of grievance; a hugely effective communicator; but propelled by ugly rhetoric, hate-filled views and a deep mean streak.”

Coming from the left, HuffPost published a banner headline that said “BIGOT, MISOGYNIST, HOMOPHOBE, CRANK: RUSH LIMBAUGH DEAD.” In its obituary, the publication cited a number of remarks Limbaugh made about various marginalized people, including comments from an episode of his show in which he called law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.” He later apologized for those comments.

Coming from the right, The Daily Caller wrote that “Liberals Reacted As You Can Imagine To Rush Limbaugh’s Death, By Sneering And Celebrating.”

Fox News aired commercial-free live coverage of Limbaugh’s death, calling to mind the way other TV networks cover the deaths of presidents.

Tucker Carlson called in and observed that Limbaugh “took the oldest of mass communication media,” the radio, “and turned it into the most powerful force in American politics. He did it purely out of talent.”

Some of Fox’s tributes had a bitter edge, folding in complaints about the way Limbaugh was treated elsewhere. Mark Levin said Limbaugh “loved radio, loved the American people, loved this country.”

“If you thought somebody needed help he would help them,” Levin said. “Nothing like what the liberal media has tried to do to him. And I just want him to be remembered the way he should be remembered. A tremendous patriot of this country who refused to accept the attacks that came against this country from within.”

The commentary, at times, sounded like an episode of Limbaugh’s radio show.

Trace Gallagher, who delivered Fox’s televised obituary for the host, said “one thing both detractors and ‘dittoheads’ can agree upon: Rush Limbaugh, the man who once claimed to have talent on loan from God, changed broadcasting in America forever.”

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