Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shake hands at the end of their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

“Sometimes, when I listen to my opponent, it kind of seems he doesn’t know who our friends are versus our adversaries. He has this weird fascination with dictators,” said Hillary Clinton in a rally in Florida on Friday. “He’s kind of signed up for the Vladimir Putin wish list. He doesn’t care whether NATO falls apart, and he is really cavalier about other countries getting nuclear weapons. He said he doesn’t care. Let Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia, get a nuclear weapon. Whoa! That’s the kind of dangerous, reckless talk that people around the world pay attention to.”

There is an irony here that Clinton is doing a fine job making clear how scary a Trump presidency would be while Trump spends time demonizing America and transforming everyday life into a setting for a teen dystopia movie. The group Republicans for Clinton (R4C16.org) is out with an ad reminding us just how alarmist Trump sounds:

On one level, the ludicrous hyperbole is amusing, but plainly Trump has figured out that making things seem scary creates impetus to toss out career politicians in favor of a novice and plays into disgruntled voters’ negative feelings about their own lives.

Clinton’s retort has been two-part.

First, she’s started sounding more optimistic in tone. Also in Florida, Clinton told the crowd, “I am confident and optimistic about our country. We never get anything done if all we do is get down in the mouth and feel bad and complain and try to blame somebody for something else. That’s not who we are as Americans. We need to lift ourselves up, and we need to roll up our sleeves to get to work to make sure that future is what it should be for our country.”

Evident in her roll-out of a national service policy (including an expanded Peace Corps and AmeriCorps and a new part-time force of reserve volunteers), her can-do attitude differs sharply from Trump’s pessimism and insistence he “alone” can fix the country. (“Tens and tens of millions of Americans do some kind of volunteering in your hometowns every single year. It’s one of the best things about the American people. We are doers. We don’t just shrug our shoulders when we see something that needs fixing, we don’t get resigned or pathetic, or blame other people and turn on each other to find scapegoats. We roll up our sleeves, we get to work to try to make things better in our neighborhood, our community, our city, our state, our country.”)

Clinton is in good company when she says she doesn’t recognize the portrait of America that Trump paints. Especially with regard to minorities (in his telling, African Americans routinely get shot walking down the street and Mexicans are “rapists”), Trump intentionally scares his base — mostly less educated white males. They feel angry, aggrieved, left behind — and Trump now wants to scare the living daylights out of them and their wives. Clinton tells them America is and always will be great so long as it is “good” (maintains its civic virtues).

Clinton, greatly aided by Trump’s unhinged attacks of Alicia Machado (not the first angry feud or self-destructive loss of impulse control we have seen from him), has adopted a second line of attack: making clear that voters are afraid — of Trump.

This isn’t hard to do so long as he is spouting bizarre ideas (don’t stand behind sovereign debt, spread nuclear weapons, back away from NATO) and attacking Gold Star parents or an American-born judge presiding over the Trump University lawsuit. She is banking that it is easier to get voters (already privy to Trump’s erratic personality) to think Trump is a lunatic than it is to get them to believe they are living in a Third World country, as he likes to call America.

That’s certainly the tactic that has moved many Republicans her way. Again from R4C16.org:

Former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff observed in a statement provided to Right Turn, “As recently as in the first Presidential debate, Donald Trump has repeatedly displayed an amazingly reckless and confused approach to the use of nuclear weapons. Americans can’t afford a commander in chief who would gamble with the nuclear trigger.”

Events of the past week or so have driven some Republicans, however grudgingly, into Clinton’s camp. “We’ve met more new Republicans voting for Clinton, added more volunteers and raised more money this week than in the previous six weeks combined,” says R4C16.org co-founder John Stubbs. “Mr. Trump’s debate performance probably had something to do with that, but frankly more helpful was Secretary Clinton’s.” He argues, “She was prepared, pragmatic and reasonable. Republicans seeking stability see Clinton plus a Republican Congress as an acceptable outcome in what has been a truly unholy election year.”

In short, Trump creates a fictional dystopia to scare voters into embracing a strongman. Clinton sounds a call to civic participation in contrast to Trump’s gloom. Clinton wants voters to trust their own observations and conclude that Trump is an unhinged nut who will damage the country. If Trump keeps behaving in ways consistent with the latter, Clinton will find her road to the White House become much smoother.