One definition of a trilemma is “a difficult choice {among} three options, each of which is … unacceptable or unfavorable.” It is essentially a dilemma on steroids. Open any door; it doesn’t matter because all of them are the wrong door.
 
In the aftermath of this month’s off-year election, it appears national Republicans are confronting such a challenge as they prepare for the 2018 midterm elections, now some 11 months away.
 
In point of fact, Republicans would be on the defense in 2018 regardless of the outcome of this year’s elections. Recent midterms literally have become a referendum on the president, and Trump is deeply unpopular. Indeed, midterms since the Civil War have generally bruised and battered the president’s party, handing the incumbent party, on average, a loss of 32 House seats.
 
However, the results of last week's election seem to have exponentially raised the normal midterm stakes.  National Republicans may be facing a “wave” election, entailing huge losses in both the House and the Senate, as well as electoral reversals in the 36 states that will elect governors in 2018. 
 
Driving this alarm is Republican shock and awe in the aftermath of sharply increased Democratic turnout on Nove. 7, a rise that both baffled and surprised many election observers.
 
This turnout surge was seen most dramatically in the suburbs in Virginia and New Jersey, where Democrats won both gubernatorial elections. But even more significant perhaps was the rolling tsunami of Democratic voters in local elections around the country.
 
Most prominent was the turnout in Pennsylvania, notably in the four suburban “collar” counties outside of Philadelphia, where Democrats registered historic gains.
 
In Delaware County they won seats on the Delaware county council, something not seen since county home rule was adopted decades ago. In Bucks County, Democrats won four of the county row offices – and four in Chester County as well. These countywide results were replicated in dozens of townships and boroughs across the commonwealth.
 
President Donald Trump was not on the ballot in Virginia or New Jersey or the Pennsylvania suburbs or anywhere else in the country. But his presence was very much part of the environment that motivated Democratic voters across the country.
 
The “Trump factor” now dominates all electoral calculations. Trump is not only a deeply polarizing figure; he is a deeply paradoxical one.  His staunch support among perhaps 35 percent of the electorate, especially among working-class Democrats, clashes violently with his 58 percent disapproval rating. He is the most unpopular first-term president in modern American history.
 
Republicans must confront this stark political reality: Trump is simultaneously the most loved and most reviled president in decades.
 
Thus the GOP’s trilemma, with its three options, each fraught with political peril.  
 
The first option is to run all out with Trump, fully articulating support for his presidency and his agenda. This might be thought of as the Steve Bannon solution.
 
The second option is to run as far away from Trump as possible. Some prominent “establishment” Republicans are beginning to talk about this publicly and many more privately.
 
The last option is to do both while appearing to do neither. Basically, this eschews any open campaigning with Trump while supporting much of his policy agenda. This option was the approach utilized by Ed Gillespie in his loss in the Virginia gubernatorial election.
 
Each option recalls the very definition of a trilemma: a tough choice, offering three options, none of which seems workable.
 
The first option requires full-throated support for a deeply unpopular president. In a presidential election, that might work as an Electoral College strategy, firming up the support of Trump's core supporters. But in congressional elections for 435 House members and 33 U. S. Senators, the math is awful, even in the grotesquely gerrymandered districts extant today in Pennsylvania and across the country.
 
Option two may be worse. If Republicans run away from the president, his core voters will abandon the party. Without Trump on the ballot, they may stay home or even vote Democratic – leaving the GOP without much of a base.
 
The final option, ditch Trump, but embrace his agenda - sounded better until it was actually tried by Ed Gillespie in Virginia.  It certainly did not help Gillespie with Trump supporters, nor Republicans in winning the gubernatorial race.
 
It is possible that Republicans will adopt all three of these strategies, adapting each to local conditions and challenges. In the balkanized politics of contemporary America, it might work.
 
What won’t work, however, is for the GOP to move into 2018 with no coherent strategy to deal with the Trump factor. Doing nothing is not an option.
 

G. Terry Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael L. Young is a speaker, pollster, author, and was Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University.  Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached at terry.madonna@fandm.edu.