Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump responded Hillary Clinton saying that he shouldn't be in charge of the law in the U.S. saying, "You'd be in jail." The comment was met with rousing applause from the audience. (The Washington Post)

Watching Donald Trump talk during a presidential debate about jailing his opponent was a jarring experience for Al Cardenas, who traces his Republican identity in part to his hatred of the authoritarian Castro regime he fled long ago.

“As a refugee from a dictatorship, that attitude sounds all too familiar,” said Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

For John Yoo, the conservative legal scholar and former Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, Trump “reminds me a lot of early Mussolini. . . . Very, disturbingly similar.”

The populist candidacy that upended the GOP order and has torn through many of the norms of American politics is now raising a concern among critics in both parties: that Trump is, in effect, running to be a strongman with dictatorial powers.

In addition to vowing to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton and put her in jail, Trump has also pledged to “open up our libel laws” so when reporters write “purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” He has also talked of establishing a religious test on immigrants and about setting up a national stop-and-frisk program, despite the fact that policing policies are considered to be in the purview of state and local governments.

The Fix's Aaron Blake breaks down Trump's extraordinary call to jail Hillary Clinton over her handling of a personal email server. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Trump promises to rip up long-standing trade agreements. He has presented himself as a singular force to remake a broken political system, saying at the GOP national convention that, “I alone can fix it.” His latest campaign ad ends with the words: “Donald Trump will protect you. He is the only one who can.”

It would seem few aspects of daily life would be beyond the reach of the power he envisions. “If I become president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store,” Trump said last year. “You can leave ‘Happy Holidays’ at the corner.”

Trump’s defenders say his words should not be taken literally, but that his muscular approach is what the country needs to put itself back on track.

They also argue that his comments should be viewed in the context of the choice that voters have this fall, and that many Americans are justified in wondering whether President Obama’s Justice Department gave Clinton a pass in deciding not to prosecute her after investigating her use of a private server while she was secretary of state.

“Which is more concerning, that a major party’s presidential candidate has to undergo an FBI investigation before she can run for office?” said Charles Kesler, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank in California. “Or that the other party’s candidate, reasonably suspicious of the energy and probity of the investigation, insists that a fresh investigation be launched by a new administration? I say the former.”

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) this week defended Trump, telling an interviewer that he wonders whether “we need a Donald Trump to show some authoritarian power in our country and bring back the rule of law.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In the final stretch of the race for president, Trump supporters advise their candidate on how he can deliver on Election Day. (Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

The real estate developer has cast himself as a “lone ranger” who leads a “one-man army.” And he has extolled the power of narcissism, citing a book called “The Productive Narcissist” by psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby.

Trump wrote in “Think Like a Billionaire” that Maccoby’s book “makes a convincing argument that narcissism can be a useful quality if you’re trying to start a business. A narcissist does not hear the naysayers.”

That sentiment raises the question of whether a President Trump would listen to advisers or others who disagree with him.

Maccoby, who works from a Washington office, said he didn’t know that Trump had cited his book until informed by a Post reporter. He said in an interview that although narcissists with an altruistic streak can be powerful leaders, he is concerned that Trump represents the most negative side of narcissism.

“There is something that these people do that is very dangerous,” he said. “They make organizations into tribes. If you look at Trump, he really is not leading the party. He is creating a tribe of people who share a sense of both resentment and being better than other people. History shows this kind of personality, when they are given power and they are puffed up, can become totally abusive and dangerous.”

Trump has repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders, famously saying, for instance, that Russia’s Vladimir Putin is a stronger leader than Obama.

Trump has also expressed admiration for some dictators.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein “was a bad guy, really bad guy,” Trump said this year. “But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good.” Trump added that Hussein “didn’t read them the rights — they didn’t talk. They were a terrorist, it was over.”

Trump said he admired the way North Korean leader Kim Jong Un killed his uncle to gain power. “He’s like a maniac, okay?” Trump said. “And you’ve got to give him credit. He goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss.”

Constitutional scholars say they are alarmed that Trump does not seem to understand the separation of powers.

“I have genuine concerns about his grasp of the most basic principles of American constitutional law, such as free expression, racial and religious equality, limited presidential power and more generally the rule of law,” said Akhil Reed Amar, a professor of law at Yale University and a registered Democrat.

Some conservatives point to a glaring inconsistency in Trump’s rhetoric: many of his supporters on the right have long favored limiting the role of government.

Yoo, the former Bush administration official, said Trump’s promise to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Clinton is “a compounded stupidity,” because it would erode power that should remain in the executive branch with the Justice Department.

“If you are a Republican or a conservative, you think that special prosecutors are unconstitutional,” Yoo said.

Even former attorney general Michael Mukasey, who has been critical of Clinton’s email practices, said Trump’s approach seemed un-American.

“It would be like a banana republic,” Mukasey said. “Putting political opponents in jail for offenses committed in a political setting, even if they are criminal offenses — and they very well may be — is something that we don’t do here.”

Jose A. DelReal contributed to this report.