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Rand Paul is a ‘Detroit Republican.’ What does that mean?


Yesterday morning, presidential candidate Rand Paul posted a video in which he took a chainsaw to a 70,000-page stack of office printer paper bearing the U.S. tax code, shoved it in a wood chipper, and set it on fire. (See Fortune’s write up of the stunt here.) He dressed down for the occasion, in jeans, work boots, and a T-shirt that said “DETROIT REPUBLICAN.”

When asked about the shirt, a campaign spokesman replied simply that “it was a gift he received while visiting Detroit last year.” And while the shout out to Detroit might be a simple show of solidarity with Michigan voters (Paul performed his assault on the tax code while campaigning in the state), all aspects of the image of a candidate are so meticulously planned, that it’s worth asking what exactly it means to be a Republican in Motor City these days, and what the subtext is behind the $30 shirt.

Detroit, a longtime Democratic stronghold, is best known for its abject failure to govern in recent decades. As the vanishingly small opposition party, Detroit Republicans can credibly distance themselves from much of that mismanagement. But the GOP has played a larger role in Detroit of late: the state’s Republican governor instated an emergency manager, and orchestrated the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. It was a big step forward, but it may smack too much of big government intervention for the taste of many Republicans. Paul’s own idea for the city, “Free Enterprise Zones,” hasn’t gotten much local traction.

An alternate definition of “Detroit Republican” has a more libertarian bent. A few Ayn Rand acolytes hatched a plan to buy Detroit’s island park, Belle Isle, for $1 billion and use it as the staging ground for an Objectivist paradise. The buy-in would be $300,000, and it would aim to become the “ ‘Midwest Tiger,’ rivaling Singapore as an economic miracle,” as the Times explained in 2013.

And then there’s the possibility that “Detroit Republican” has less to do with Republicans in Detroit, and more with to do with respect for the city’s blue collar past, and its tenacity. The saga of Motown appeals to the American affection for the underdog, so much so that it’s been invoked in multiple corporate branding efforts (see: Shinola, and Chrysler). But Detroit’s manufacturing past is also inextricably tied to the United Automobile Workers and the birth of the national labor movement, so it seems like an odd choice for a GOP T-shirt.

Maybe the best interpretation is that “Detroit Republican” in this context signifies the hope that the virtual collapse of government and the current rebuilding process will represent a kind of libertarian test case, wherein the absence of a public sector (and its attendant red tape) will ultimately encourage private development. That’s not too far off from the philosophy laid out by $6 billion money manager Mark Spitznagel in his 2013 essay, Austrian Detroit, which predicted that bankruptcy would be the blank slate the city needed to restart business growth. Paul, notably, hired Spitznagel as a senior economic advisor earlier this year.

Spitznagel, a Detroit native, is a successful money manager, but he is perhaps most famous for an experiment where he let 20 goats graze on a vacant plot of Detroit land. The plan was to let the goats’ grazing cut the grass for free, and then sell the cheese. The experiment ended in tragedy when local law enforcement balked, and the jackboot of municipal government sent the goats to the slaughterhouse. Detroit Republicans exist, but the city is still run by Democrats.