Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump walks onstage at a campaign rally before giving remarks on January 05, in Mason City, Iowa. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Former President Donald Trump’s huge win in the Iowa caucuses on Monday enshrines one of the most astonishing comebacks in American political history.

Losing one-term presidents almost never mount subsequent successful primary campaigns, much less pull off landslides that demonstrate utter dominance of their party. Trump transformed the GOP in his populist, nationalist, nihilistic image in 2016. By claiming 50% of the vote in the biggest win in caucus history, putting him on course to his third consecutive nomination, he showed that eight years after his outsider presidential victory, the current GOP is entirely his party.

“The big night is going to be in November, when we take back our country,” Trump told his first proper victory party since he shocked the world by winning the 2016 election. His MAGA-hat wearing crowd greeted him with chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump” beneath two vast screens reading “Trump wins Iowa!”

But the ex-president’s rebound is more stunning for another reason. He won despite 91 criminal charges and other legal entanglements that threaten his freedom and his fortune. In a head-spinning snapshot of the unprecedented times, he’s expected to show up in a courtroom in Manhattan on Tuesday morning for the opening of a defamation trial.

His Iowa triumph came three years and nine days after he told a mob to “fight like hell” before it ransacked the US Capitol in an attempt to thwart the congressional certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election win. Trump’s dominance on Monday night shows that among the most committed Republican voters, there is no price for him to pay for the worst attack on an election in modern history. In fact, his successful leveraging of his criminal plight to paint a narrative of persecution is the superpower that renewed his bond with GOP base voters and left his rivals with an impossible conundrum about how to exploit his liabilities.

His caucus victory also demonstrates the success of Trump’s election denial strategy, which has convinced millions of GOP voters of the false belief he was illegally ejected from power in 2020. For Americans who believe Biden’s warning that Trump is the “most anti-democratic president with a small ‘d’ in American history,” Monday night will have sown utter dread.

Trump’s vow to win a second term dedicated to “retribution” against his enemies, his labeling of political opponents as “vermin” and his warnings that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of America, which are reminiscent of 1930s dictators, were no disqualification in Iowa. Instead, the president who attempted to overturn democracy to stay in power used democracy far more effectively than any of his Republican opponents to win an electoral endorsement from GOP voters who want him back in the White House.

DeSantis and Haley fail to emerge as the single anti-Trump candidate

Monday’s result posed huge questions for Trump’s rivals. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will claim second place, according to a CNN projection, narrowly ahead of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. It is a showing that doesn’t offer DeSantis much hope of capturing the nomination, but may at least give him a rationale for staying in the race.

Haley came third but she is most focused on next week’s New Hampshire primary, where independent, undeclared voters and moderate Republicans offer her best chance to score an early win over Trump. But the electoral map of Iowa also illustrates the daunting task she faces in creating a path to the GOP nomination. In rural areas, where most Republicans live, she made little impression.

And while Haley and DeSantis proved there is a substantial constituency in the GOP for someone other than Trump, it’s not clear that it is large enough to defeat him, even if one of them were able to emerge as the sole alternative to the former president. While Trump was gracious to his opponents in his victory speech, there will be increasing pressure from his campaign for them to get out of the race so he can concentrate on Biden. Kari Lake, a staunch Trump supporter running for Senate in Arizona after refusing to recognize her 2022 gubernatorial loss, told reporters at his victory party that the other candidates couldn’t win and were running “vanity projects.”

The magnitude of Trump’s victory also makes it much harder for his distant rivals to claim any true momentum coming out of Iowa. “It’s not a race for second, it’s a race for relevancy and everyone is losing except for Donald Trump,” said Republican strategist Scott Jennings. “This Republican Party wants to give Donald Trump one more shot to prove them all wrong that everything was a witch hunt, that the election was rigged. … It’s obvious they want one more shot at it; it’s showing up in national polling and we are seeing it at these caucus sites.”

Iowa is only one state in a long nominating process. Votes cast in the caucuses represent a small proportion of the state’s population. But Trump’s dominance of rural voters in the state mirrors his support base across the country outside cities and suburbs. And polls suggest that his victory here can be replicated in most GOP bastions across the country.

Trump’s Iowa victory also sharpens the collision between the 2024 election and his legal imbroglio. His solidified status as a huge GOP front-runner increases the possibility that his party could nominate a convicted felon for president — an unheard-of-scenario — depending on the progress of his four looming criminal trials this year. The victor of the Iowa caucuses is expected in Manhattan on Tuesday morning for the opening of his defamation trial involving writer E. Jean Carroll, who has already been awarded $5 million in a separate trial after Trump was found liable for battery.

Trump is both a pseudo incumbent and change candidate

The former president’s dominance of Iowa also cements an impression that he is effectively running as an incumbent. To start with, many Republicans don’t believe he lost in 2020 and think he’s the rightful president, a theme Trump reinforced in his victory speech. And Trump’s aura and mastery of the GOP — recently demonstrated in his strong-arming of key party office holders for endorsements — has made it difficult for his rivals to take him on in a fair fight. That pseudo incumbency hugely helped Trump in Iowa, where he has leveraged relationships that he nurtured since he came second in the caucuses at the start of his shock rise to power in 2016.

During four years in the White House, Trump steered aid and attention the Hawkeye State’s way, constantly building political influence. The playbook is likely to work elsewhere, especially in the critical South Carolina primary that looms next month. CNN’s Manu Raju reported Monday that the ex-president is already pressuring one of the state’s senators, Tim Scott, for an endorsement as he seeks to effectively close out the nominating race early by crushing Haley on her own patch. Trump’s power is also underpinned by his campaign’s success in heading off any meaningful oversight from the Republican National Committee, which never made him pay a price for skipping campaign debates that it sanctioned. And Trump’s supporters now hold influence and power at every level of the Republican Party across the country. Many have taken legislative action in the wake of his false claims of fraud in 2020 that have made it harder to vote and easier to interfere in elections.

Yet while Trump’s effective incumbency is a huge factor, the fact he is out of power also allows him, paradoxically, to run as a candidate of change. The roles are reversed from 2020. Biden is the one in office and now has a more recent White House record than Trump’s to be judged on. But even when he was in the Oval Office, Trump never forgot that his magnetism among GOP voters lies in always being the outsider and a disruptor. His unhinged behavior, incessant shattering of rules and challenges to the law reinvigorated a brand perfectly tailored to Republican voters who despise “elites” in politics, government and the media. His uncouth language and politically incorrect jokes about the late Sen. John McCain and former President Jimmy Carter, who is in hospice care, only reinforce the impression he says what many of his supporters think.

In a flash of self-awareness, Trump explained his political method when he told North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who endorsed him after his failed 2024 campaign, “You need controversy for traction sometimes.” In recent days, DeSantis has tried to position Trump as the “establishment.” But it’s a hopeless strategy: even when the front-runner was the head of the US government and his portrait was on the wall of every US government office and embassy, he was a scourge of the establishment.

A victory heard around the world

Trump’s win makes the long theoretical prospect that he could win the White House a far more direct possibility. Barring some unforeseen event, his dominance in Iowa shows the extreme difficulty any of his remaining rivals will have of keeping him off the Republican ticket. And recent polls have shown him highly competitive and even ahead of Biden in the handful of swing states that will decide the destiny of the White House. In a nation split down the middle, the election will be close whatever happens. It may concern Democrats that while Trump hasn’t toned down the unhinged wildness of his public appearances, his victory in Iowa was the first validation of a far more professional political operation than he deployed in either the 2016 or 2020 elections.

Still, the Biden campaign, beset by growing concern among Democrats about the president’s reelection prospects, has argued that a big victory for Trump in Iowa would begin to awaken Americans who rejected him in 2020 of the real danger that he could recapture the White House. While Trump was strong even in suburban areas around Des Moines, this may not translate into a similar performance among more moderate voters in corresponding areas in less conservative states. Trump’s deficit among this group nationwide cost him the 2020 election.

Trump’s triumph will also reverberate around the world, and force US allies to confront the possibility that the most antagonistic president in modern history, who cozied up to dictators and spurned America’s traditional friends in democratic nations, could soon be back.

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde sounded the alarm on France 2 television last week. “If we are to draw lessons from history, as in the way he managed the four years of his mandate, it is clearly a threat,” she said.

A return to office for Trump could represent an existential danger to NATO, which helped keep peace in Europe through the Cold War and into the 21st century. Trump’s victory will also give Russian President Vladimir Putin another reason to prolong the bloody war in Ukraine. Trump said Monday he’d get Putin in a room with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an encounter that could only end on terms unfavorable to the Ukrainians.